PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday said the Philippines won’t cut ties with its allies, a day after saying he wanted US Special Forces advising the Philippine military to get out of Mindanao.
“We are not going to cut our umbilical cord to countries we are allied with,” Duterte said in a speech before the members of the 250th Philippine Airlift Wing at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City.
“We are not cutting our alliances, military as well, but certainly, we will follow an independent posture and independent foreign policy,” he added.
The Philippines has a storied military alliance with the United States, which treats Manila as a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally.
Since 2002, up to 600 US advisers have been deployed to the Mindanao region under a visiting forces treaty, to train troops battling Muslim extremists, but their numbers have been scaled down in recent years.
Washington said the Philippine government had not officially communicated President Duterte’s demand to pull US military advisers out of the rebellion-torn southern Philippines.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., who is set to visit Washington, said the Philippines will continue to honor its treaty obligations and commitments to the US, including the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) that allows the rotational presence of American troops in the country.
He argued that the President only wanted “to save the lives” of the Americans who might expose themselves to the risk of being kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf terror group.
“I would like to assure our Filipino people, there is no shift insofar as our policy is concerned, with respect to our close friendship with the Americans,” Yasay said in a television interview.
He said only around 100 US advisers were left in Mindanao.
The Pentagon in June also deployed warplanes and about 120 personnel in the northern Philippines for short-term training missions aimed at ensuring the allies’ access to the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Edca gives the US military access to at least five Philippine bases, one of them in Mindanao.
Not policy, just a warning
In Malacañang, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella clarified Duterte’s Monday remarks and said on Tuesday the Philippines won’t turn its back on its alliance with the US.
In a news conference, Abella said Duterte’s statement should not be interpreted “as policy,” saying the President merely issued an “injunction” and “warning” about the risks being faced by American troops in Mindanao.
“Basically, what he was sharing was a backgrounder on his new chartered course of an independent foreign policy, that he was simply presenting the context of why there was conflict in Mindanao with the Muslims, simply because the Muslims have this long historical and cultural wound that has been left unaddressed and unatoned for and unrepented for,” Abella explained.
Since Friday, Duterte, the first Philippine President from Mindanao, has been raising the American bloody pacification campaign in the early 1900s as the reason for Mindanao’s troubles.
Unrest in Mindanao continues, Duterte believes, because the Moros view the Filipino government in Manila as merely an extension of Spanish and American imperialism.
Abella said “Having ties with the Americans are therefore also suspect in their intentions regarding peace in Mindanao.”
On Monday, Duterte said he wanted US forces to leave Mindanao because their presence there would only aggravate the situation in the island.
“I will review the foreign policy. I just couldn’t speak about it before out of respect, or I do not want a rift with America. But they have to go,” the President said in a speech in Malacañang on Monday night.
Duterte’s statement came one week after US President Barack Obama cancelled their meeting at the sidelines of Southeast Asian leaders’ summits in Laos, following the former’s expletive-laden tirades.
Aides said this was triggered by reports that the US leader would lecture Duterte on human rights amid the killings of hundreds of drug suspects in the Philippines.
The President argues that the US has no moral right to talk about human rights because it has yet to apologize for atrocities during the colonial period, such as the March 1906 Bud Dajo massacre of Moros by the US Army.
Abella labeled the Sulu massacre as a “skeleton in the closet that erodes the moral ascendancy” of the US.
In Washington, the Pentagon and State Department said they had not been officially contacted by Manila about pulling out the remaining advisers.
Analysts said any drawdown could come at a time of deteriorating security in Mindanao, with the presence of extremist and splinter rebel groups, some of which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asian security expert at the National War College in the United States, said Duterte’s actions towards the US were worrying.
“National security professionals that I am in contact with are agog with the behavior of a treaty ally,” Abuza told AFP.
“It is going to take a lot of work to get this relationship back on track,” Abuza said.
For Sen. Panfilo Lacson, one of the vice chairmen of the Senate national defense and security committee, said Duterte didn’t seem to have consulted his foreign policy and security advisers regarding his pronouncement to remove US troops in Mindanao.
“Of course it’s not yet a decision because it can still change. I just hope that he (Duterte) will gather all his security and foreign policy advisers and discuss it thoroughly,” he said.