Top Philippine Diplomat Assures U.S. After Duterte Drills Remark

BANGKOK (Bloomberg News/TNS) -

The Philippines has no plans to end joint military exercises with the U.S., the country’s top diplomat said, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s comments that upcoming maritime drills would be the last.

Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said the president’s remarks referred just to ending joint military patrols in the disputed South China Sea. He said Duterte and the Philippines continue to respect all treaty arrangements and commitments with the U.S.

“What he said was that, as he said before, there will be no joint patrols with a grey ship of any nation in the South China Sea because that would be a provocative act,” Yasay told reporters Wednesday night in video comments carried by local news site Rappler. He was speaking at an event in Hanoi during Duterte’s two-day visit to Vietnam.

Duterte, who took office three months ago, has regularly made conflicting comments about his position on the South China Sea, where the Philippines and other nations including Vietnam are locked in territorial disputes with China. He has also called into question the Philippine relationship with the U.S., his nation’s former colonial overseer and now biggest ally, and indicated he would like the Philippines to be closer with China.

The exercises between the U.S. and the Philippines run from Oct. 4–12 across multiple locations and will feature live-fire drills, an amphibious landing exercise and training on humanitarian assistance, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Manila.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday he was not aware of any notification from the Philippines that the drills would be the last. He added the alliance with the Philippines had long been a source of stability and “is one of the most enduring and important relationships in the Asia Pacific region.”

“The bottom line is that we have significant security commitments with the Philippines,” Kirby said at a briefing in Washington. “We’re committed to meeting those commitments and to furthering this relationship.”

Duterte’s comments have at times caught his own administration off-guard, with senior officials later clarifying his remarks.

Earlier Wednesday evening Duterte addressed the Filipino community in Hanoi and gave a speech where he said he was “serving notice now to the Americans” that his country would respect its military alliance with the U.S. but also seek new partnerships.

“I will establish new alliances for trade and commerce,” he said in comments distributed by his office. “And you are scheduled to hold war games again, which China does not want. I will serve notice to you now that this will be the last military exercise.”

Duterte also reiterated that the Philippines would not join any joint patrols in the South China Sea.

Beijing has reclaimed thousands of acres of land in the disputed waters and increased its military presence in recent years. In addition to being a strategic waterway through which more than $5 trillion in international trade passes each year, the waters are important fishing grounds.

The Philippines had a victory in July when an international tribunal ruled that China’s claims were unlawful. That case was brought by Duterte’s predecessor, who had insisted he would not engage in one-on-one talks with China about the dispute. Duterte has said while he respects the tribunal ruling he is open to direct talks with China provided the Philippines benefits economically.