US: Duterte’s stance ‘rhetoric at this point’

Posted on October 28, 2016

THE WHITE HOUSE on Wednesday, Washington time, said it was regarding Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s latest remarks as “rhetoric at this point,” for lack of a formal communication from Manila “indicating a policy change” in line with Mr. Duterte’s rhetoric. Mr. Duterte said in Tokyo on Wednesday that he wanted, “maybe in the next two years, my country freed of the presence of foreign military troops.” “I want them out and if I have to revise or abrogate agreements, existing agreements, this will be the last maneuver war games between the United States and the Philippine military,” he also said.

These remarks continued from what Mr. Duterte said a day earlier that Washington should forget about its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with Manila.

The US State Department soon after responded that it was “not going to react and respond” to his “every bit of rhetoric.” But asked by reporters about Mr. Duterte’s remarks in Tokyo, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on Wednesday: “Well, there’s a diplomatic process where, through a formal channel, the Philippines could formally notify the United States of their intent to, like I said, alter the terms of the alliance between our two countries.”

“We’ve received no formal notification along those lines,” he added. “So that’s why the news that’s been made out of the Philippines I would classify as rhetoric at this point.”

But Mr. Earnest also stepped up his response regarding Mr. Duterte, saying: “Well, I think what is true is that the string of counterproductive rhetoric... has injected some unnecessary uncertainty in the relationship between the United States and the Philippines..” Asked if US President Barack H. Obama, Jr. would be open to meeting with Mr. Duterte at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Peru in November, Mr. Earnest said: “At this point, I don’t have details about the [US] President’s schedule when he’s attending the APEC Summit.” “I also don’t know at this point whether or not President Duterte has committed to attending the APEC conference. But as we make some progress in putting the President’s schedule together for that trip, we’ll keep you posted on this,” he added. Mr. Earnest was then asked: “So the White House would be open to scheduling such a meeting?”

His reply, posted as part of the press briefing transcript on the White House Web site, went thus: “It’s not one I’m prepared to rule out at this point. But we’ve ruled out previous meetings with President Duterte on short notice. (Laughter.)”

Meanwhile, a Chinese studies expert said in Manila the US needs to boost its support in terms of military aid to the Philippines.”I think US could have done more and can do more to enhance Philippines-US relations, including on the security/defense aspect,” Lucio B. Pitlo III, a lecturer at the Chinese Studies Program of the Ateneo de Manila University, replied via e-mail when sought for comment.

He noted that US backing had failed to deter China in the past from building artificial islands in the disputed West Philippine Sea.

“While joint Philippines-US military exercises improved readiness and preparedness of Philippine troops in combat and non-combat missions (e.g. search and rescue, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance), this security alliance did little to improve the material/hardware aspect of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.”

Mr. Pitlo cited as an example the US transfer of “de-weaponized vintage World War II era cutters” despite the Philippines being “a long-standing security partner in a critical regional theater.”

Such weak support has caused the Philippines to be “heavily reliant on US for its external defense more than two decades after terminating US bases in the country,” he explained.

Mr. Pitlo said the foreign policy direction of autonomy in terms of internal and external security matters is a welcome development.

“As an independent and sovereign state, the Philippines cannot outsource its external defense to another country so any security alliance or partnership it will forge with any state should be geared towards developing the country’s own national defense capability and not to engender external dependence,” he said.

The Philippines has an existing Mutual Defense Treaty with the US since 1951 and a Visiting Forces Agreement since 1999, which allows American troops on Philippine soil and under which falls EDCA.

“Asia-Pacific, including the critical East Asia, will be the engine of global growth and development in the decades to come and the Philippines is a frontline state on this with one of the world’s fastest growing economies and increasing security needs. If US wants to pivot back or rebalance back to this region, it needs to do more comprehensively and it may start at giving more weight and substance to long-standing security alliance and economic partnerships with its long-standing regional friend, the Philippines,” Mr. Pitlo said.

He also warned of the danger in the Philippines dealing closely with major power competitions in the geopolitical scene.

“The Philippines should stay away from major power competition. We should be friends to all and enemies to none like what our other friends and neighbors in Southeast Asia are doing. It is a difficult balancing act that we must do. If we are perceived to be too close to one power, we lose out on the potential opportunities of engaging the other,” he said.

“The Philippines should avoid polar opposites and should contribute in channeling such major power competition away from the military domain into more productive endeavors like competition for infrastructure funding, enhanced trade and investments,” he added.

The country “should know its national interests and not be swayed by major powers in their strategic power struggles,” Mr. Pitlo also said. “To this end, the effort to carve an independent foreign policy is salutary.” -- Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral and Buena Rilyne C. Bernal