The top U.S. diplomat in the Pacific told reporters this month strong anti-American statements by the president of the Philippines are more rhetoric than reality, calling them "colorful" and arguing there has been no substantive change in the military relationship with the U.S. ally in the Pacific.
Philippine Marine Pfc. Japeth Inocencio, from Jamindan, Philippines, shakes hands with U.S. Marine Cpl. Todd Jenkins, from Long Beach, Calif., at Colonel Ernesto Ravina Air Base, Philippines, during Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise 33 (PHIBLEX), Oct. 10, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Nelson Duenas/Released)
In September, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte called for severing military ties with the U.S., saying he would end joint Philippine and U.S. counterterrorism missions in Mindanao and stop joint naval patrols in the South China Sea. More recently he has forged a closer relationship with China, saying his country was "separating from the United States" and would be dependent on China "for all time."
But U.S. officials caution that Duterte has made no moves to sever its ties with the U.S. military and that what he's saying in public doesn't match his actions behind closed doors.
"I'm not aware of any material change in the security cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines," said Assistant Sec. State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russell during an Oct. 12 interview with reporters in Washington.
"President Duterte has made a panoply of statements ... the operative adjective is 'colorful,' " he added. "But what that will ultimately translate to in terms of the ability of the Philippines to work with the United States on issues directly germane to its security and the regional and global challenges that it faces — from piracy to illegal fishing to disaster relief and counterterrorism — is a question that we don't have an answer to just yet."
No matter how strongly Duterte denounces the U.S. and its leaders in public, Russell added, the close historical bond between America and the Philippines is something that transcends the politics of the day.
"For our part, we love the Philippines. The relationship between Americans and Filipinos is as warm as you can get," Russell said. "We're very close with each other not only by these cultural and personal and historical ties but also by shared interests and by some common threats."
Russell added that early conversations with the Philippine president, who assumed office in June, indicated he was committed to the U.S.-Philippine military and trade alliance.
But more recently, Duterte has begun to forge closer ties with China despite a decision in July by an international Law of the Sea tribunal that ruled in the Philippines' favor against China's control of certain sea lanes close to the island nation — a conflict Russell warned could have led to a war between Manilla and Beijing.
China has rejected the international court's ruling.
On a recent trip to China, Duterte reportedly forged a $13 billion economic deal with Beijing, calling it the "springtime of our relationship" with China. The apparent shift away from the U.S. and toward the communist nation has caused alarm in some diplomatic circles in the U.S.
But Russell urged calm.
"There's clearly increased dialogue" between China and the Philippines, Russell said. "In principle that's a good thing. ... As long as that dialogue is ... consistent with international law."
"There's a lot of noise and stray voltage in the media," he added. "But ultimately the decisions about the alliance operationally are going to be taken in a deliberate and thoughtful way."