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Asia's Game of Thrones
In Manila, U.S. Diplomat Rebukes and Reassures

Washington’s top Asia diplomat is in the Philippines today, meeting with the Philippine Foreign Secretary after a turbulent week that had President Rodrigo Duterte announcing his country’s “separation” from the U.S. Reuters:

The most senior U.S. diplomat for Asia assured the Philippines on Monday that Washington remained its “trusted” ally and that it supported Manila’s blossoming ties with China.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel however warned that growing concern about drug-related killings in the Southeast Asian country was “bad for business”. [..]

Explaining Duterte’s “Goodbye America” remarks, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay said on Saturday the United States remained the “closest friend” of the Philippines, but Manila wanted to break away from a “mindset of dependency and subservience” and forge closer ties with other nations.

Russel, speaking to reporters after meeting Yasay, said Duterte “has already walked back”.

Notably, Russel stated that the U.S. supported improved relations between the Philippines and China, rejecting the zero-sum thinking that was apparent in Duterte’s own remarks last week, when the Philippine president declared that “America has lost.”

Despite reassuring talk of the continued alliance, Russel did rebuke Duterte for causing “consternation” among allies and investors with his provocative comments, which he said were “not a positive trend.” Yet in many respects, Russel’s remarks appeared designed to smooth over disagreements, and reflected U.S. policy as usual: affirming support for the Philippines’ status as an American military ally while chastising Duterte for his violent, extralegal crackdown on drugs.

The U.S.-Philippine relationship remain ambiguous in the wake of Duterte’s Beijing trip. Philippine officials have attempted to soften their president’s rhetorical excesses without directly contradicting him. That balancing act has often produced its own contradictions. Foreign Secretary Yasay, for instance, said on Saturday that the United States remained the “closest friend” of the Philippines, and today reaffirmed the U.S. as the “only military ally” of the Philippines. However, he has also denied that the Philippines was backtracking on the talk of separation.

President Duterte is in Japan this week, so the United States will be eagerly watching to see how he will approach the U.S. relationship upon his return. The diplomatic niceties exchanged in Manila may calm the waters for now, but the real test is yet to come.

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