By Mai Nguyen and Manuel Mogato
HANOI/MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine officials said on Thursday they were awaiting clarification from President Rodrigo Duterte about military exercises with U.S. forces after he promised to honor their defense treaty, but declared joint war games would cease.
The maverick former Philippine mayor famous for his unpredictability and terse rhetoric, on Wednesday told Filipinos in Vietnam that joint marine drills with next week would be “the last”, a comment he slowly repeated.
His remarks gave one of the clearest signs yet of his willingness to test the limits of a historic alliance that has provided important defense support for the Philippines and helped the United States further its Asia rebalance strategy in the face of an increasingly assertive China.
Visiting Vietnam’s leadership on Thursday, Duterte did not speak to media but his foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay, said longstanding treaties with the United States would be honored.
He said exercises with U.S. forces planned for 2017 would go ahead, because they were agreed by the previous government, while those from 2018 onwards would be reviewed.
But he said the Philippines did not want a military ally and sought diversified relations and no enemies.
The United States embassy in Manila said it had not received any official notice from the Philippine government on the termination of joint exercises.
Philippine foreign ministry spokesman Charles Jose said it was possible that a Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States could be abrogated, but that would be up to Duterte.
“No one could clarify what the president really wants,” he told reporters.
The Defense of National Defense (DND) said it was seeking guidance from the president.
“The DND will await further orders from President Rodrigo R. Duterte,” it said in a statement, adding its defense secretary would “seek more clarification and guidance”.
“As stated earlier, all agreements and treaties with the U.S. are still in effect,” it said in a statement.
Yasay said Duterte’s ruling out of joint maritime patrols with the United States had been misinterpreted, and he was referring only to exercises in waters disputed by both the Philippines and China.
Duterte swept an election in May on a promise to get tough on crime, and in particular to wipe out drugs.
He initially appeared to have been infuriated by a U.S. expression of concern about his bloody crackdown on drug dealers and he referred to President Barack Obama as a “son of a bitch” on the eve of a planned meeting at an summit in Laos this month.
Washington called of the meeting in response.
Duterte then set off fireworks when he declared the few remaining U.S. special forces advisers based in the rebellious Philippine south would be withdrawn.
While railing at the United States, the country’s biggest foreign investor, almost on a daily basis, he has spoken warmly of China and the need to improve relations damaged earlier in the year by an international tribunal that rejected China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.
Duterte’s snubbing of the United States and outreach towards China has added to uncertainty over a foreign policy that has often been articulated via both threats and expressions of a desire for peace.
His visit to Vietnam comes at a time when both countries are undergoing military modernization programs.
The Southeast Asian neighbors agreed a strategic partnership last year, in response to China’s more vigorous maritime presence.
Former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, who initiated the Philippines’ successful arbitration case against China’s maritime claims, said the Duterte administration should consider a rethink of its approach.
“Perhaps we can persuade this government to revisit the off track direction that is driving the so-called new foreign policy,” he told a forum in Manila.
(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales in MANILA; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)