US Secretary of State John Kerry pleged to $32 million (P1.5 billion) in fresh aid to train Philippine troops, reminding President Rodrigo Duterte of the close ties between Manila and Washington in a courtesy call on Wednesday.
Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a news conference Duterte and Kerry “affirmed the longstanding relationship” between the US and the Philippines.
“They also discussed common concerns: terrorism, crime, drugs, religious fanaticism, and maritime security. In relation to this, they also mentioned a menu of solutions,” Abella said.
Malacañang said the $32-million aid would be in the form of training and services as well as assistance in law enforcement.
Kerry’s offer comes after initial indications by Duterte of a more conciliatory approach toward Beijing in connection with the dispute over the resource-rich West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), where the US wants to maintain a significant security presence.
Duterte’s stance has since hardened after Manila won an arbitration case against Beijing before an international tribunal, which invalidated China’s historic claims to areas covered by the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone or EEZ.
Abella said Duterte had assured Kerry that the July 12 ruling issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands would be the basis of talks with China.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, home to vital shipping lanes and also believed to hold vast mineral reserves. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.
“The President did mention that whatever talks we will engage in will begin with the ruling. That will be the foundation, the ruling regarding the area,” Abella said.
Calls by Washington and others for Beijing to heed the ruling had fallen on deaf ears.
The ruling is considered legally binding as China is a signatory to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) that was the basis of arbitration.
Kerry is the first foreign minister to be received by Duterte since the latter’s assumption to the presidency on June 30.
Political analyst Ramon Casiple told The Manila Times Kerry’s offer of $32 million in aid was a show of goodwill and an effort to gain political capital with the new Duterte government.
Kerry: No confrontation
The US secretary of State praised Manila’s handling of its territorial dispute with Beijing on Wednesday, as he and Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. downplayed the failure of Association of Southeast Nations (Asean) foreign ministers to address the issue.
Kerry, who landed on Manila at 8:45 p.m. Tuesday after attending the meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Vientiane, Laos, cited the Duterte administration for the “very responsible and measured way” it responded to the international arbitration ruling.
Kerry said he was satisfied with the Asean statement issued Monday, even if it skipped references to the July 12 ruling.
“We’re not trying to create a confrontation. We are trying to create a solution,” he told reporters in a news conference with Yasay at the Department of Foreign Affairs, before going to Malacañang.
The 10-member regional bloc only expressed serious concern over recent developments in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) that have “eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
While Asean foreign ministers did not include the arbitration ruling in their statement, it cannot be considered as a diplomatic win for China, said Yasay.
“That was not the object of our meeting. The arbitral award is a matter between China and the Philippines … The purpose of that meeting was simply to address the South China Sea issue in terms of trying to resolve it, consistent with the general principles of international law and the 1982 Unclos,” he said.
EDCA, climate change
In Malacañang, Duterte and Kerry also talked about the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA, the legality of which was affirmed by the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
“It was affirmed that whatever works for the Philippines will be what will work,” Abella told reporters.
Abella said the Paris pact on climate change, which Duterte had vowed not to honor because of its implications on the country’s industrialization, was also discussed during the Palace meeting.
“Mr. Kerry was helpful in defining certain issues about the Paris pact and the President also responded appropriately when he said that the Philippines will work [it]out just as long as everything is fair,” Abella said.
Militant groups gathered in Manila to protest Kerry’s visit, but were barred from getting near the US embassy on Roxas Boulevard.