TOKYO: President Rodrigo Duterte said Wednesday he wants US troops out of the Philippines in the next two years and is willing to scrap defense pacts with longtime ally Washington if necessary.
The comments follow a series of anti-American tirades by the firebrand leader, who has repeatedly attacked the US while cozying up to Beijing, upending his nation’s foreign policy.
“I want, maybe in the next two years, my country free of the presence of foreign military troops,” Duterte told the Philippine Economic Forum in Tokyo, in a clear reference to US forces.
“I want them out and if I have to revise or abrogate agreements, executive agreements, I will,” he added.
The US, which once operated sprawling bases in the country, now has a small number of Special Forces on the southern island of Mindanao to aid in counter-terrorism operations.
Duterte has previously said he wants US troops out of Mindanao because their presence stokes tensions on the island where Islamic militants have waged a decades-long separatist insurgency.
Duterte’s aides frequently attempt to walk back his controversial comments, and Wednesday was no exception.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., asked at a subsequent news conference to clarify the remarks, said Duterte did not mean US troops would be ousted, stressing that “our national interests still continue to converge.”
The acid-tongued leader arrived in Tokyo Tuesday on his first visit to Japan since taking office June 30, looking to persuade executives his country was “open for business,” after overturning Manila’s traditional diplomatic alliances.
The 71-year-old has also slammed Washington for questioning his violent crime crackdown, which has claimed some 3,700 lives and attracted widespread international criticism.
Duterte has insulted President Barack Obama, announcing a “separation” from the US during a visit to Beijing last week.
Although he quickly clarified his comments, saying that “separation” did not mean he would “sever” ties, he reiterated his calls on Wednesday for an end to all joint war games with the US.
“This will be the last maneuver war games between the United States and the Philippines’ military,” he said of an event hosted in recent weeks by the Philippines.
Although his Japanese hosts depend on the US for security, Tokyo has so far not responded to Duterte’s diatribes, while Washington has taken a calm approach.
“We’re going to take the long view,” State department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday.
“We’re not going to react and respond to every bit of rhetoric,” he added.
‘Decision to junk EDCA needs to be studied’
Reacting to the President’s earlier statement threatening to junk the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US that allows the rotational presence of American troops in the Philippines, former senators Francisco Tatad and Juan Ponce Enrile as well as Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez called for a thorough study.
Enrile said Duterte should have a backup plan once he decides to kick out US troops, even as he acknowledged that the Philippines had the prerogative to abrogate its treaties with other countries.
“In the game of nations, when you enter into a treaty, that treaty is not permanent. Any country can denounce its commitment under a treaty based on the agreement of the parties,” Enrile said in the Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum in Malate, Manila on Wednesday.
Golez agreed with Enrile that a security umbrella was important as long as China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea.
“I have no doubt that that would continue as a threat to us, they (China) continue to grab whatever they can grab if we show any sign of weakness,” he said.
Tatad noted that the EDCA has a termination clause, and the Philippines should give the US a one-year notice before ending the agreement.
“We have been governed by headlines. The President said the Americans will leave but the Americans are still there. If you talk to the defense and security people there are no actual orders,” said Tatad.