Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did not mince words in China, announcing a definitive break with the United States:
“America has lost now,” Duterte told Chinese and Philippine business people at a forum in the Great Hall of the People, attended by Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.
“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way,” he added.
“With that, in this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States,” Duterte said to applause. “I have separated from them. So I will be dependent on you for all time. But do not worry. We will also help as you help us.”
Duterte’s comments in China are his most straightforward declaration of a re-alignment yet. Since he took office in June, the Philippine President has alarmed Washington with his anti-American rhetoric, threats to end military cooperation with the United States, and willingness to negotiate with China on the South China Sea. Ahead of his trip to Beijing, experts in Washington have been debating how serious Duterte’s overtures to China are. Now they have an answer.
What remains to be seen is how Philippine elites will react to Duterte’s single-handedly redefining Philippine foreign policy. Bureaucrats in Manila have several times tried to walk back the President’s incendiary comments, and there have already been complaints from top-ranking officials that Duterte is acting on his own. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, for instance, claimed that Duterte did not consult his cabinet before stating that he would end joint military exercises with the U.S.
The President’s latest pronouncement, however, delivered in no uncertain terms during an official state visit, will be impossible to unsay. Duterte is already taking steps to solidify the relationship with China: he has agreed to reopen talks with Beijing on the South China Sea, and both countries agreed to a joint coast guard committee on maritime cooperation. Beijing will likely grant concessions on fishing rights for Filipino fishermen as well. As for a commercial alliance, Duterte’s trade secretary announced that China and the Philippines will sign off on $13.5 billion worth of trade deals by the end of the trip.
Duterte’s China trip continues through the end of the week, so more surprises may be in store. But after these most recent statements, U.S. policymakers should suffer no illusions about the direction Duterte wants to move things.