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US seeks clarity on Duterte ‘separation’

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WASHINGTON, Oct 21, (Agencies): The United States will seek an explanation from the Philippines for President Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement of a “separation” from Washington, the State Department said on Thursday, calling the remarks baffling and at odds with the two countries’ close relationship.

Duterte said during a visit to China on Thursday that “America has lost” in military and economic ties with the Philippines and “I announce my separation from the United States.” “We are going to be seeking an explanation of exactly what the president meant when he talked about separation from the US,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.

“It’s not clear to us exactly what that means in all its ramifications.” Duterte has made too many troubling statements recently that lend uncertainty over its ties with the United States and are at odds with their alliance, the White House said on Thursday.

“We’ve seen too many troubling public statements from President Duterte over the last several months,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters at a daily press briefing. “And the frequency of that rhetoric has added an element of unnecessary uncertainty into our relationship that doesn’t advance the interests of either country.”

Duterte, meanwhile, has made no formal request to modify its cooperation with Washington, despite his declared “separation” from the United States, a US official said Thursday. The official, who asked to remain unnamed, told AFP “we still have not received any requests through official channels to alter our assistance to or cooperation with the Philippines.”

The Obama administration has few good options and limited leverage as it struggles to craft a response to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s increasingly hostile rhetoric towards the United States and his warm embrace of China. For months, Washington has played down Duterte’s anti-American insults and broadsides. But the flamboyant new leader raised the stakes to a new level on Thursday when he announced his “separation” from long-time ally the United States and realignment with Beijing and possibly even Moscow, America’s two main strategic rivals.

Duterte’s latest outburst, less than three weeks before the US presidential election, casts further doubt on the seven-decade US-Philippine alliance and threatens to further undermine President Barack Obama’s faltering “pivot” to Asia as a counterbalance to China’s growing assertiveness. Potentially at stake is the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, reached under Duterte’s predecessor, allowing the United States to rotate ships, aircraft, and personnel through five Philippines bases, an arrangement seen as crucial to projecting US military power on China’s doorstep. Mindful of Duterte’s volatile nature, the Obama administration has trod carefully so far, seeking to avoid provoking him even as it chides him over his deadly war on drugs, US officials say.

One US official, who did not want to be identified, said there had been an active internal debate in recent months on how far to go in criticizing Duterte’s government on human rights and that the measured tone adopted was not as strong as some aides would have liked. US attempts to raise questions about Duterte’s campaign against drugs, in which more than 3,000 people have been killed since he took office in June, have drawn angry denunciations by Duterte. He has derided Obama as a “a son of bitch” and said he should “go to hell.”

“It doesn’t seem to help to say anything because the minute you say something, he just lets loose his barrage of obscenities,” said Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think for the US to just blast him constantly is probably not very effective.” There is a suspicion in Washington that Duterte could swing back to the United States — if he decides it suits his interests. “There is no question that Duterte is … trying to play the well-worn game of playing us off against the Chinese,” another US official said, on condition of anonymity.

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