PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday he wanted to buy arms from Russia and China that would help combat terrorism, but vowed not to cut ties with the country’s strategic allies, the United States, Australia, Japan and Vietnam.
Following several anti-American outbursts triggered by Washington’s criticism of his war against drugs, Duterte said he is exploring defense deals with America’s top rivals.
“There are countries that offered us so many [things],” Duterte said in a speech before troops at Villamor Airbase in Pasay. “I would like to ask Defense Secretary [Delfin] Lorenzana to join our technical people to go to Russia and China to explore whatever is the best option.”
Duterte, who met with Russian and Chinese officials last week at the Asean summit, said the two countries enticed him with attractive loan offers to buy military armaments that he wanted to fight terrorism and insurgency in the country’s south.
“To the military commanders now... please study the purchase [of equipment] because we have the money. We have two countries which agreed to give me the softest loans payable in 20 to 25 years. I want weaponry and armaments; I don’t need jets, F-16s ... Those are of no use to us,” Duterte said.
“We don’t intend to fight any country,” Duterte said, saying he would rather have propeller-driven planes that can be used in anti-insurgency operations.
But Duterte also said he is not cutting alliances with anyone.
“We are not going to cut our umbilical cord with the countries we are allied with now,” the President said. “But certainly, we will follow an independent posture and independent foreign policy. We should be everybody’s friend.”
On Monday, Duterte said that the US Special Forces based in Mindanao should leave the country, saying the country’s alignment with the West was at the root of the Muslim insurgency.
Duterte’s order came a week after he threatened to cuss US President Barack Obama as a “son of a bitch” if he brought up human rights abuses during their scheduled one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the Asean summit. These remarks caused Obama to cancel their meeting.
US advisers in Mindanao help train Filipino soldiers but are barred from combat except in self defense.
The Palace on Tuesday said there have been no specific directives on how to carry out the President’s call to remove the US Special Forces based in Mindanao.
At a press briefing, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the President only meant that the US forces should leave because of safety concerns.
A US State Department spokesman, commenting on Duterte’s remarks, admitted that Washington is “not happy with the things they’ve heard from the President.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby told a news briefing that he had seen reports about Duterte’s comments, but was “not aware of any official communication by the Philippine government ... to seek that result.”
“I’m not aware that there’s been a tangible, practical effect on relations. [But] I think, as we said we haven’t been happy about everything we’ve heard and we haven’t been afraid to talk about that and to be frank about it,” he said.
Despite the pronouncements of Duterte, Kirby said that the United States is committed to its alliance with the Philippines.
The Pentagon said it was aware of Duterte’s statements but had not been contacted by authorities on the issue.
“We will continue to consult closely with our Filipino partners to appropriately tailor our assistance to whatever approach the new administration adopts,” Pentagon spokesman Gary Ross said.
Duterte once again unleashed his anti-American rhetoric and said he skilled the Asean-US meeting not because he was sick but “as a matter of principle.”
“I purposely did not attend the bilateral talks between Asean countries and the President of the United States. I attended all the others….The reason is not I am anti-West. The reason is not that I do not like the Americans. It’s simply a matter of principle for me,” Duterte said.
Last week, Palace officials said Duterte skipped the US-Asean meeting because he was not feeling well.
During their brief encounter in Laos, Obama urged the Filipino leader to conduct his war on crime “the right way” and protect human rights.
The United States said the Philippine government had not officially communicated Duterte’s demand to pull US military advisers out of the rebellion-torn southern Philippines.
Since 2002, up to 600 US advisers have been deployed in the Mindanao region to train troops battling Muslim extremists but their numbers have been scaled down in recent years.
A week after calling Obama a “son of a bitch,” Duterte said Monday US Special Forces in the region “have to go.”
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay tried to play down Duterte’s comments, saying Tuesday they were “in the context of wanting to save the lives of these Americans who might be exposing themselves to unnecessary risk” from militant attacks.
In Washington, the Pentagon and State Department said they had not been officially contacted by Manila about pulling out the remaining advisers, who Yasay said now numbered about 100.
Yasay, interviewed by Manila’s ABS-CBN network, confirmed the allies had not discussed Duterte’s demand.
Duterte, 71, has said he is “not a fan” of the United States and on Monday explained his demand by showing pictures of US troops killing Muslims as America took control of its new colony in the early 1900s.
He has said the spat was triggered by State Department criticism of his controversial war on drug crime, which has left about 3,000 people dead since he began his six-year term in July.
Yasay said Duterte’s new comments did not signal a shift in policy, and that ties with the US remained strong.
The President only wanted to protect Americans from kidnappings and terrorism as they had become “a very good target”, Yasay said.
“There is no shift in so far as our policy is concerned with respect to our close friendship with the Americans.”
Yasay, who was heading to Washington for talks, added the Duterte administration would honor existing defense agreements including a 2014 accord giving the US military access to at least five Philippine bases, one of them in Mindanao.
His comments were in sharp contrast to an initial explanation by Abella, who said the demand “reflects [Duterte’s] new direction towards coursing an independent foreign policy.”
A militant lawmaker on Tuesday backed Duterte’s call for American soldiers to leave the country, calling it unprecedented and that the US soldiers should leave immediately.
“President Duterte is right in asserting what has long been demanded by the people: ending the more than century-old US military intervention in Mindanao, which among others resulted in the massacre of civilians, like the 1906 Bud Dajo massacre before and the 2015 Mamasapano debacle,” Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate said.
Zarate said he is hopeful that the President’s statement will soon lead to abrogation of several special laws that legitimize the presence of American special forces in Mindanao.
“We hope that this is just the start and, eventually, President Duterte also pursues the abrogation of the onerous and lopsided treaties like the Mutual Defense Treaty [MDT], the Visiting Forces Agreement [VFA], the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement [MLSA] and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement [Edca]. With this we can truly say that the country have a truly independent foreign policy,” Zarate said.
But opposition lawmakers expressed concern over Duterte’s order.
Reps. Edcel Lagman of Albay, Gary Alejano of Magdalo party-list and Edgar Erice of Caloocan City, at a news conference, sought clarification from Malacañang and the President himself on the issue.
Alejano complained of conflicting foreign policy statements coming from the Palace and the President himself, saying Duterte must explain the changes in the country’s foreign defense policy.
“The message coming Malacañang and government officials are conflicting. There is changing of policy statements and pronouncements,” Alejano said.
Lagman said that the government must be able “to respect the validity” of the VFA and the Edca.
Erice said the presence of US troops in the country was intended to provide Filipino people the much needed defense against internal and external security threats, such as Chinese bullying in the South China Sea.
The military on Tuesday seemed confused by Duterte’s order.
“We are yet to receive any specific directive as to how this pronouncement will be effected. We understand that the implementation of the said pronouncement is the subject of deliberations by concerned departments like DND [Department of National Defense] and DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs] to mention some,” said Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“We assure our people and allies that Philippine-US defense relations remain rock solid. Activities lined up for the year continue without interruption. Consultative planning activities for 2017 and beyond likewise remain on track,” he added. With Florante S. Solmerin, Maricel V. Cruz, AFP
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