IMMEDIATELY after President Rodrigo Duterte ended his sentence that he would soon end joint military exercises with the United States, Washington said, like some thunderclap chasing a lightning bolt, that Philippine-US relations are “ironclad.”
In San Diego, California, Pentagon chief Ashton Carter said Washington’s alliance with Manila, its closest ally in Southeast Asia, remained unwavering despite Duterte’s statement to make matters up with China.
On Sept. 28, the 71-year-old Duterte said he would soon end joint military exercises with the United States, in what political observers call a symbolic blow to a military alliance dating back more than 60 years.
He made the statement before several Vietnam-based Filipinos in Hanoi, in his usual circuitous style, at the start of a two-day official visit.
Duterte said: “I will serve notice to [the Americans] now, that this [military war games in October] will be the last military exercise, jointly Philippine-US, the last one.”
Senior presidential aides had been blowing a fuse downplaying the President’s appearingly tough stance.
But he repeated the statement on his return to Davao City, adding the previous joint exercises did not result in technology transfer from the US military.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. separately dashed, resembling the speed of Lydia de Vega in her prime, to clarify the President’s remarks.
Yasay, who returned recently from the United Nations in New York, told reporters covering Duterte’s working visit the President “did not say that at all,” stressing “You have to understand the President’s statements in the context of what he was saying.”
What Yasay pushed forward was that Duterte’s statements were delivered in a specific context.
That context, according to him, was the President’s earlier declaration there would no longer be joint military patrols at the West Philippine Sea to avoid provoking other claimants to the disputed waters.
A context, according to political and diplomatic observers, despite the decision of the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal, after several months of hearings and submission of documents, that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea (in the South China Sea) and that the “nine-dash line” of China, which was absent throughout the proceedings and refused to recognize the case, is invalid.
At a news conference in Manila, Yasay went to great lengths to explain that decisions on joint exercises between Washington and Manila were made by the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Board, which recommended to Duterte’s predecessor administration the continuation of war games up to 2017, stressing this could be reviewed by the Duterte administration after next year.
Esperon himself told reporters in Hanoi the President merely meant to stress this month’s military exercise would be the last for the year.
It appears, based on statements from the US State Department, that the Philippines has yet to officially communicate Duterte’s decision. What has been clear is what US Deparment of State spokesperson John Kirby said Washington remains hopeful in moving its ties with Manila forward and that the latter will remain “committed to meeting” significant security obligations.
Then in a speech early this month in Bacolod City, Duterte continued his attack on the United States by threatening to junk the country’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) with the US, a pact that allows American forces to conduct activities on agreed locations inside Philippine military bases.
But while the President’s key men try to explain the former’s statements, the Communist Party of the Philippines, which resumes peace talks with the Philippine government in Oslo, Norway in the second week of October, has hailed Duterte’s statements.
It said as the Duterte administration tries to promote “an independent foreign policy, such war maneuver exercises by US troops are completely anachronistic and should be put to a permanent end.”
But while the CPP was getting its statement printed by local and foreign media, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines said a stronger military cooperation between Manila and Beijing was in the wind. Interestingly, some political observers have noted the soft-pedalled reaction of the CPP to the Chinese ambassador’s statement.
Zhao had said the Chinese and Philippine militaries “need to talk to each other to enhance trust and mutual confidence to avoid incidents of misunderstanding...”
That followed Duterte’s announced plans to buy arms from China and Russia, which would allow Moscow and Beijing to have a toehold in the Philippine arms market, in which 75 percent of weapons come from Washington.
The line of Duterte, scheduled to visit China in the third week of October, is that Moscow and Beijing have agreed to 25-year soft loans that would allow Manila to purchase weapons. But some diplomatic and political analysts say Duterte does not have to veer away from its weathered ally or use expletive-laden claptrap lines.
Since the Philippines took the One-China Policy—establishing formal links with Beijing and dropping ties with Taipei in 1975—there have been several bilateral exchanges in the different fields.
Ditto with Russia, with which the Philippines forged diplomatic bonds in 1976, without, some analysts are saying, Duterte having to antagonize its major ally the United States.
Former Senator Francisco Tatad himself has asked what analysts consider a relevant question. Asks Tatad: “When DU30 says he wants to move closer to China and Russia and away from the US, what is he prepared to give to the two countries and take away from the third?”
In Tatad’s view, shared by fervid political observers, Duterte “seems to have the impression that prior to June 30 this year we had no working relations with China and Russia, and that his arrival alone will open a new path.”
That’s bull’s eye or dead center, according to observers of the political and diplomatic theater, who say the declared shift is “pure bunk or taradiddle.”