Philippines guarantees U.S. deal intact as Duterte's salvos test ties

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines moved to shore up relations with the United States on Tuesday with guarantees that a treaty between them would be honored and security ties were “rock solid”, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s railings against Washington.

President Rodrigo Duterte (C) clenches fist along with other Philippine Air Force (PAF) officials during the 250th Presidential Airlift Wing (PAW) anniversary at the villamor air base in Pasay city, metro Manila, Philippines September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

The firebrand leader launched more verbal salvos on Monday about what he called atrocities under American colonial rule, calling for the pullout of U.S. special forces stationed in the restive south that he said were complicating counter-insurgency operations.

Duterte is hugely popular at home for his brash remarks and take-charge style, but his frequent tirades against Washington, including calling both President Barack Obama and his ambassador to Manila a “son of a bitch”, have tested a relationship of strategic importance to both sides.

Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said Duterte’s remarks, including that the southern Philippines “would never have peace” while allied with Washington, were not a signal that a pact between them would be abrogated.

“The president has said ... that we will respect and continue to honor our treaty obligations and commitments,” Yasay said in a radio interview.

As his administration scurried to put out fires, Duterte followed up with a guarantee of his own, saying the Philippines would not “cut our umbilical cord” with allies, but would pursue its own path.

“We are not, we could never be, just a small country and to be shouted at or lectured upon,” he said in a speech at an air force event.

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It was the latest sign of the abrasive former lawyer hinting at taking decisive measures, then later ruling them out, adding to concerns in Washington about his volatility.

Obama last week canceled a meeting with Duterte after his outburst, saying the mood was not conducive to productive talks.

At an official ceremony on Monday, Duterte said U.S. special forces could become high-value targets for Abu Sayyaf rebels notorious for kidnapping and beheading foreigners.


But that, the military said in a statement, would entail the exit of a “token” number of Americans, and broader defense programs with the United States would remain intact.

“Philippine-U.S. defense relations remain rock solid,” armed forces spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said.

Duterte had on Monday shown pictures of what he said were victims of colonial-era atrocities against Muslims in Mindanao, repeating assertions that Americans were to blame for the instability that has dogged the region.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella described Duterte’s presentation as a “backgrounder” for Filipinos that explained his independent foreign policy.

“These actions, these references that he’s making, are intended to communicate to one and all that we need to be ready to chart our own course,” Abella told reporters.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Monday emphasized shared concerns and interests with the Philippines, then took a thinly veiled swipe at Duterte, who won a May election by a big margin, appearing to compare him outspoken Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“Elections do say a lot about what kind of person is going to represent your country on the international stage...” he told reporters.

The United States has only a few troops remaining in Mindanao after the conclusion last year of a program that once had 1,200 personnel providing technical and logistics support. Washington’s security priority has since shifted toward the South China Sea, where the Philippines in among several countries at odds with China.

Ranhilio Aquino, a Catholic priest and dean of the San Beda Graduate School of Law, said Duterte’s complaints about Washington were not without cause, but he should think carefully about important alliances.

“When you are being bullied, and you want international rule to prevail, you need help from your friends,” he said.

Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Manolo Serapio Jr; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore