MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's self-declared "separation" from the U.S. has put a traditionally robust alliance on even shakier ground, leaving officials on both sides scrambling to contain the political fallout.
Visiting Beijing on Thursday, Duterte floated the possibility of going to Russia to tell President Vladimir Putin "that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia." This came the same day that Duterte agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping to mend ties that have cooled over the South China Sea disputes.
"I announce my separation from the United States," both militarily and economically, Duterte said.
The language was harsh even for the Philippine leader, who is frequently critical of the U.S., and sent cabinet members into damage control mode. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia, who accompanied Duterte to China, said in a joint statement that the Philippines "will maintain relations with the West." Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez said Friday that the Philippines will not stop trade and investment with the U.S.
Even those in the Philippines raised concerns. Lawmakers issued statements saying the country did not have to choose between the U.S. and China in economic cooperation. Albert del Rosario, a former foreign affairs secretary known for his pro-American stance, called the incident a "national tragedy."
The U.S. has made no effort to mask its frustration. A State Department spokesman said Thursday local time that Daniel Russel, assistant state secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, would visit Manila this weekend to "try to get a better explanation of what was meant by 'separation.'"
Duterte had previously suggested revising the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which effectively allows the U.S. to station troops in the Philippines, and said the joint bilateral military drills earlier this month would be their last. He has even called U.S. President Barack Obama a "son of a bitch," leading Washington to cancel a planned summit in September. The U.S., fed up with the never-ending barrage of comments, hopes to remedy the situation through Russel's trip.
U.S.-Philippine ties run deep. The Southeast Asian country is one of Washington's most important allies in the Asia-Pacific region, alongside Japan, South Korea, Australia and Thailand. The U.S. was the top investor in the Philippines and the second-biggest importer of its products in 2015. More than 30% of the 10-million-plus overseas Filipinos reside in the U.S., with their remittances helping to grease the wheels of the Philippine economy.
Yet Duterte continues to cozy up to China. He had said he would use the summit with Xi to discuss the recent international tribunal ruling against Beijing's claims in the South China Sea. But a joint statement released Friday made no mention of the decision. Duterte appears to have adopted a friendlier stance in order to draw economic aid from China.
His immediate predecessor, Benigno Aquino, cooperated with Japan and the U.S. to curb Chinese maritime expansion. Clever as Duterte's tactic of playing Beijing and Washington against each other may seem, he risks the nation's economy and security if he goes too far. But Duterte enjoys a 90% approval rating at home thanks to his tough stance on drugs, meaning that there is little to keep him from stoking further controversy.