PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has announced that October’s joint exercises between the Philippine and US militaries would be the last, as “China does not want” the war games with the Americans.
Duterte’s remarks before the Filipino community in Hanoi, Vietnam is the latest in a string of anti-US tirades in response to Washington’s criticism of his bloody war on drugs, while seeking closer ties with Beijing and Moscow as part of an “independent foreign policy.”
The President’s aides struggled to backpedal and the US State department said ties with Manila remained strong, but Duterte’s statements Wednesday night before a full-house audience at Hanoi’s Intercontinental Hotel were clear.
“So I’m serving notice now to the Americans: I will maintain the military alliance because there is [a mutual defense]pact which our countries signed in the early ‘50s. But I will establish new alliances for trade and commerce,” the President said.
“You (US) are scheduled to hold war games again, which China does not want. I would serve notice to you now that this will be the last military exercise. Jointly, Philippines-US, the last one,” he added.
The President said he decided to make the announcement himself to avoid putting Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in an awkward position.
What was unclear was how Manila would be able to meet its treaty obligations with Washington if joint military exercises were discontinued.
Apart from the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty in which both countries agreed to defend each other in case of an external attack, Manila and Washington signed in 1998 a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) governing the conduct of American soldiers in the Philippines.
The 10-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed by the previous Aquino administration in 2014, a supplement to the VFA, allows the rotational presence of US troops as well as their access to Philippine military facilities.
Duterte, in his remarks in Hanoi, was referring to the annual Philippines Amphibious Landing Exercise (Phiblex) scheduled on October 4 to 12 in multiple locations in Luzon and Palawan, which is close to reefs and outcrops being contested by Manila and Beijing.
At least 500 Filipino marines and 1,400 US servicemen based in Okinawa, Japan will be participating in the 33rd edition of the amphibious exercises, which will include medical and engineering missions.
Phiblex is meant to improve interoperability between Philippine and US marines in times of disaster or maritime conflict.
Yasay, Esperon clarify
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. rushed to clarify the President’s remarks.
“No, no, no. He did not say that at all,” Yasay told reporters covering Duterte’s working visit to Hanoi on Wednesday. “No, no, no. I do not – You have to understand the President’s statements in the context of what he was saying.”
Yasay claimed Duterte’s announcement was delivered in the context of the President’s earlier declaration that there would no longer be joint military patrols at the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to avoid provoking other claimants to the disputed waters.
In a news conference on Thursday, Yasay explained that decisions on joint exercises were made by the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Board, which had recommended to the previous Aquino Administration the continuation of war games up to 2017. But this can be reviewed later on by the Duterte Administration, he said.
Esperon told reporters in Hanoi on Wednesday the President only meant that the October military exercise would be the last for the year.
“We will clarify,” Esperon said after the President’s speech.
In Washington, US Department of State spokesman John Kirby said the Philippines had yet to officially communicate President Duterte’s decision.
“To my knowledge, no. There has been no official rendering of a decision of that sort to the US government,” Kirby said in a regular State department news conference. “They might have a context I don’t have, but we’re not aware of any such decision.”
Kirby said the US was optimistic in moving its relationship with the Philippines forward and that Manila would remain “committed to meeting” significant security obligations.
Palawan as battleground?
In his speech on Wednesday, Duterte reiterated that the Philippines will no longer participate in joint patrols in the South China Sea.
“There will never be an occasion that I will send the gray ships there. Not because I am afraid,” he said.
He said that at any rate, Manila won the international arbitration case against Beijing in July.
Duterte pointed out, however, that the ruling pertained only to the Philippines’ maritime entitlements to the West Philippine Sea within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone provided under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
This amounted to fishing rights, he pointed out.
“When that time comes, I will tell China, this is ours. I will talk to you but I will not go out of the four corners of this paper (tribunal ruling). But it is not the time to die. I am not ready to commit the soldiers of this country just to be massacred,” the President said.
There are only two options as regards China, Duterte reiterated. “Either we go to war or we talk. We can’t beat China … , even with the help of America. So we talk,” he said.
“Besides,” Duterte said, Palawan would become a battleground. “Naloko na [That’s crazy]!”
But it’s okay to take the battle to San Francisco, he quipped.
Open to China, Russia
The President also reiterated plans to expand ties with, and visit, China and Russia, two powers with historic rivalries with the US.
“I will visit China. I will open the doors for investment, everything will be open, the Internet, even the toilet bowl … Then I will go to Russia. I talked to [Russian Premier Dmitry Medvedev] in the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit,” Duterte said.
On Monday, the President said the Philippines was at the point of no return in relations with the US, as he would like to open trade alliances with China and Russia which he described as the “other side of the ideological barrier.”