In one truly lousy day in Laos, the 118-year relationship between Filipinos and Americans, and between the Philippines and the United States, looked set to unravel because of profanity and piqued pride.
In the clear light of the morning after, we all see how an unguarded moment’s remark could potentially ruin a relationship that took decades to build and how, when more sober heads have had time to reflect and prevailed, regaining one’s real bearings could just as quickly restore bilateral good will. Perhaps, the ties that bind the two countries would not only survive but could, because the rectification was deliberate, even grow stronger.
Each side now seems determined to turn this momentary snag in relations into a shared resolve to strengthen and reinvigorate the relationship.
It was fitting that President Duterte led the way by expressing his regrets for the words he had spoken in anger and which were turned by those who reported the incident into a personal attack against President Obama.
Our President regretted that his words “came across as a personal attack on the US President.” He said he had overreacted to reports that said Mr. Obama planned to lecture him in their meeting about his unorthodox methods in combating the drug trade. “We look forward to ironing out differences arising out of national priorities and perceptions, and working in mutually responsible ways for both countries,” he said.
It was equally fitting and correct that the White House official, Benjamin Rhodes, Deputy National Security adviser, who in a way ignited the Duterte outburst with poorly chosen words of his own, is working hard to put the relationship back on course.
Since Tuesday, Sept. 6, the White House has scrambled to limit the fallout from Obama skipping a meeting with President Duterte. Scrapping the meeting, American officials said, was less an expression of Mr. Obama’s pique than a recognition that the news media would treat it as a spectacle.
Rhodes declared that the alliance between the US and the Philippines was “rock solid;” the two countries work together on a range of issues, from drug interdiction to counter-terrorism. He said it was possible that Mr. Obama would run into Mr. Duterte anyway, since the two are attending a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Vientiane.
No one will dispute the high importance of the Philippines to America’s foreign policy and strategic Asian pivot. The Philippines has a sensitive role to play in the broad scheme of security and economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.
No one should also dispute President Duterte’s desire to carve out a more independent foreign policy for the Philippines than that of his predecessor. He seeks to settle an impasse with China over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.
Mr. Rhodes said the US would give the Philippines leeway to negotiate an agreement with China, with the important caveat that it must adhere to international law. That is the message Mr. Obama would have given Mr. Duterte in person.
It may be that the PH-US relationship will benefit from having had to go through the test of fire during these past few days.
Officials of both governments must now realize how words can bring life or death to a relationship – between two persons or sovereign countries; how a small spark of a reckless utterance by a little tongue can set a great forest on fire; and how words of respect and due regard can enable allies to accomplish great things together.