‘Won’t sever ties’ with Washington: Duterte waters down US talk, blasts EU instead

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte attends a news conference during his visit in Beijing, China, October 19, 2016. © Jason Lee
The outspoken Philippine leader backtracked on claims of a ‘separation’ from the United States, a day after making the announcement in Beijing. He unleashed his sharp tongue on the EU, however.

Duterte initially made the remarks at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday, during a four-day state visit to China.

“In this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States,” he told an audience of Chinese and Philippine businesspeople.“Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost,” the Philippines president said.

“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [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.

Duterte’s officials were left scrambling to explain and interpret their president’s statements for the media, while White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters there had been “too many troubling public statements from President Duterte over the last several months.”

However, on Friday, Duterte seemed to walk back his previous statement. Speaking from his home city of Davao, Duterte told reporters that a full separation was unfeasible.

“It’s not a severance of ties. Severance is to cut diplomatic relations,” the president explained. “I cannot do that. Why? It’s for the best interests of my country that we maintain that relationship,” he said.

Duterte then tried to reframe his earlier speech, explaining that the Philippines was not seeking to sever ties, but to pursue its own independent policies.

“What I was really saying was, separation of a foreign policy,” he continued. “In the past, and until I became president, we always followed what the US would give the cue. What he would give, the cue, that we are there, we are there, we follow. I won’t follow.”

As to maintaining military ties with the United States, Duterte said he would need to consult with his police and military.

Washington welcomed Duterte’s clarification, with Josh Earnest describing it as “more consistent with the seven decade-long alliance between the United States and the Philippines.”

The US and Philippines enjoy a long-standing alliance. Both have an interest in mitigating Chinese influence in the region, but this seems to be changing under President Duterte, who has been making overtures to China. He has also personally insulted Barack Obama, calling him a “son-of-a-b****” in the Tagalog language, prompting Obama to cancel a meeting between the two, which finally led Duterte to apologize. Washington has otherwise been cautious in its responses to Duterte’s frequent outbursts, with a State Department official telling the LA Times “we are not going to respond to every little thing said in Tagalog somewhere in the Philippines.”

‘Euro is piece of paper’

While taking a slightly more conciliatory stance on the US, Duterte hasn’t hesitated to take the opportunity to unleash his sharp tongue on the EU, however.

“EU, no wonder you are in shambles now. You cannot even agree to be together or not. Whether to form still a European community or disintegrate. Why? Because all your lawyers are all stupid and idiots.”

“Your euro, that’s a piece of paper,” he added.

Duterte once responded to the EU with “F**k you” after it sharply criticized him for his anti-drugs campaign, which has seen over 4,400 people killed since July, according to police statistics.