Philippines President Duterte seeks to cut U.S. military ties while wooing China

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte pose for photo during the ASEAN Plus Three Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 7, 2016.

REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine president is taking his anti-U.S. rhetoric up a notch, saying Wednesday he wants to end joint military drills with the Americans just as a diplomatic tie-strengthening trip to China was announced.

President Rodrigo Duterte said he has instructed his defense chief not to prepare for joint exercises with the U.S. military next year as he moved to realize his threat to remove the highest-profile symbol of his country’s treaty alliance with Washington.

Duterte, however, reiterated Wednesday that he will not abrogate a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the U.S. He has said, however, that he’ll chart a foreign policy not dependent on Washington.

Duterte says: “I insist that we realign, that there will be no more exercises next year, ‘Do not prepare,’ I told Defense Secretary Lorenzana.”

Duterte has also said he wants U.S. forces out of the south and has opposed joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the disputed South China Sea.

Meanwhile, plans were announced for Duterte’s state visit to China next week in the latest instance of reaching out to Beijing despite an ongoing territorial dispute, while questioning his country’s traditional ties with the United States.

The Oct. 18-21 visit will include talks with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang touching on ways to improve bilateral relations and deepen cooperation, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday at a regular news briefing.

“China anticipates that President Duterte’s visit can help with enhancing political trust ... dealing with disputes properly through dialogue and bringing the bilateral strategic cooperative relationship for peace and development back to the track of sound and steady development,” Geng said.

Without mentioning the dispute over waters and islands in the South China Sea, Geng said the Philippines was a “traditionally amicable neighbor of China.”

Duterte, who labels himself a socialist, has turned toward China amid a string of anti-U.S. pronouncements and a falling out with President Barack Obama, whom he has lambasted for criticizing his deadly anti-drug crackdown.

Both the violent drug crackdown and the anti-U.S. rhetoric appears to have boosted Duterte’s popularity at home. About 76 percent of Filipinos polled by Social Weather Stations in a recent survey said they were “satisfied” with Duterte’s performance, with just 11 percent reporting being “dissatisfied” and the rest undecided.

On Monday, he said that when visiting China he wouldn’t discuss sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, a fishing ground China seized in 2012 that is the crux of the China-Philippines territorial dispute.

That action prompted the government of Duterte’s predecessor to file a case against Beijing with an arbitration panel in The Hague, which in July ruled overwhelmingly in Manila’s favor. That enraged China, which had refused to take part in the proceedings or honor the outcome.

However, Duterte said he would ask China to allow Filipino fishermen to again operate in the area.

“I will just say, ‘Just let my brother Filipino fishermen go back there to fish,’ then we can talk,” he said in a speech.

In an earlier speech, he also said that when he meets with Xi, he will offer to open all areas of trade and commerce, along with land leases of up to 120 years for Chinese companies.