THE UNITED States sought to ease tensions brought about by the controversial tirade of President Rodrigo Duterte against US President Barack Obama, with a White House official insisting that relations between Manila and Washington remain “rock solid.”
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters at the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings in Vientiane, Laos that “the nature of our alliance with the Philippines has been and remains rock solid.”
“[P]eople should certainly expect that our very close working relationship with the Philippines is going to be enduring,” he said.
US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter echoed this, describing the Philippines-US defense alliance as “strong” and “longstanding.”
Obama called off one-on-one talks with Duterte following the latter’s expletive-laden outburst.
Before leaving for Vientiane on Monday, Duterte was asked by a reporter how he would respond if asked by Obama about the mounting deaths of drug suspects.
Duterte responded that the Philippines is not a US lapdog and it would be disrespectful of Obama to raise the killings during their meeting.
He questioned Obama’s right to challenge him on human rights and called the US President a “son of a whore,” in remarks widely reported by the international press.
Duterte issued a statement expressing regret over the outburst on Tuesday.
US State department spokesman Mark Toner admitted that the US scrapped the meeting because Duterte’s statements raised questions about the chances of a productive discussion.
“Words matter, and we want to see an atmosphere that is cordial and open to strong cooperation,” Toner said in a news conference in Washington.
The Philippines is the US’ oldest Asian partner, and is designated as a major “non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally.”
US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump weighed in on the tiff, with the former saying Obama was right to cancel the meeting.
“President Obama made exactly the right choice,” she told reporters in her campaign plane.
“When the President of the Philippines insulted our President, it was appropriate, in a very low-key way, to say: ‘Sorry, no meeting.’ And since then, there’s been an apology and an expression of regret which is appropriate,” she added.
Clinton however acknowledged the need to maintain ties between the two nations.
“We have a lot of ties between the United States and the Philippines. And I think it’s very important that we have a relationship, but there has to be a certain level of respect that is expected on both sides,” said Clinton, who as secretary of State was an architect of Obama’s policy of emphasizing the importance of the Asia-Pacific to US interests in the face of a rising China.
Trump appeared to taunt Obama, whom he had criticized for being weak on foreign policy.
In a tweet, the Republican candidate said the reception that Obama received from the Philippines, as well as China, was “terrible.”
“China wouldn’t provide a red carpet stairway from Air Force One and then Philippines President calls Obama ‘the son of a whore.’ Terrible!” he said.
Boats from the US
In a sign that relations between Manila and Washington have not been affected by Duterte’s outburst, the United States is giving the Philippines two used military aircraft.
The Philippine Coast Guard said Wednesday the vessels would help it expand sea patrols in the face of territorial disputes with China.
The two Sherpa 30-seater aircraft will be delivered in December, coast guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo told AFP.
“It will help us in the movements of the Philippine Coast Guard like patrol missions,” Balilo added.
Balilo said the Sherpas would help the coast guard augment its meager air patrol capability, now comprised of two old Britten-Norman Islanders.