Duterte comment on split with the U.S. draws confusion, mixed reactions

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — President Rodrigo's Duterte's strongly-worded announcement of a parting of ways with the United States has created confusion, prompting members of his economic team to explain what the sudden declaration means.

In a speech before Filipino and Chinese businessmen in Beijing Thursday evening, Duterte declared, "I announce my separation from the United States, both in military, not maybe social, but economics also."

"America has lost now. I've realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It's the only way," he told the audience which included Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.

Related: In China, Duterte announces split with U.S.

In a statement, the US embassy said they have yet to hear from the Philippine government "what Duterte's remarks on 'separation' might mean but it is creating unnecessary uncertainty," it said.

The embassy noted recent "troubling rhetoric" coming from the president that is "inexplicably at odds with the warm relationship that exists between the Filipino and American people and the record of important cooperation between our two governments."

It then announced that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel will be coming to Manila "as part of a previously scheduled trip to the region" and will meet his Philippine counterparts to talk about  "the broad scope" of bilateral relations.

Russel will fly in over the weekend for his meetings next week.

"For our part, we will honor our alliance commitments and treaty obligations. And of course, we expect the Philippines to do the same," the embassy statement continued. 

It stressed that Philippine-American relations are "built on a 70-year history, rich people-to-people ties, including a vibrant Filipino-American diaspora, and a long list of shared security concerns."

Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez downplayed Duterte's declaration.

"The statement of the President simply means maintaining (a) relationship with the West,"  he clarified on The Source. "It's breaking being too dependent on one side."

Lopez said trade with and investments from the US will not stop. He said Duterte only expressed his "desire to strengthen and rekindle ties with China and the ASEAN region, which we have been trading with for centuries."

The Philippine economic team released a similar statement, noting that "we share the oriental culture conducive to better understanding with our regional partners."

 

Lopez assured US investments in the Philippines are safe.  He said the Duterte statement would not affect Filipinos working in the outsourcing industry and other American investments.

Geopolitical analyst Richard Heydarian says the president's remarks must be taken with "a grain of salt,"  describing it as "strategic recalibration."

In an interview with The Source, Heydarian says he expected cabinet members like Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay and Delfin Lorenzana of the defense department to downplay the statement.

 

The U.S. accounts for 13 percent of foreign direct investments in the Philippines, while China contributes 0.1 percent.

During Duterte's state visit to China, 13 bilateral deals covering trade, investment, tourism, crime, and drug prohibition were signed.

Related: Business leaders to bring home at least $13.5 billion deals from China

Lopez said the new deals cover "areas of industries, manufacturing, agri-business, trade finance, hotels, telecoms, tourism, transportation, ecozones, industrial parks, (and) infrastructure." He estimated that the investment will translate to two million jobs and a rise in the number of Chinese tourists in the country.

But while employment and infrastructure, especially in transportation, will benefit the Philippines, these may come with a catch.

"China has a storied history of infrastructure in the Philippines," Heydarian warned. "We have to make sure they comply with environmental regulation."

He expects Chinese investments would still "be far behind" the U.S. and Japan, however.

Heydarian says Duterte is "dramatic" about the U.S. because of "personal irritation," following their criticism of his war on drugs and his remarks on President Barack Obama and Ambassador Philip Goldberg. He also cited Duterte history with the U.S., when he refused to grant them access to a Davao base during his term and his U.S. VISA rejection.