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Duterte aligns Philippines with China, says US has lost
[BEIJING] Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced his "separation" from the United States on Thursday, declaring he had realigned with China as the two agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.
Mr Duterte made his comments in Beijing, where he is visiting with at least 200 business people to pave the way for what he calls a new commercial alliance as relations with longtime ally Washington deteriorate. "In this venue, your honours, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States," Mr Duterte told Chinese and Philippine business people, to applause, at a forum in the Great Hall of the People attended by Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. "Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost." Mr Duterte's efforts to engage China, months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled that Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea in a case brought by the previous administration in Manila, marks a reversal in foreign policy since the 71-year-old former mayor took office on June 30.
His trade secretary, Ramon Lopez, said US$13.5 billion (S$18.74 billion) in deals would be signed during the China trip. "I've realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world - China, Philippines and Russia. It's the only way," Mr Duterte told his Beijing audience.
Mr Duterte's remarks will prompt fresh concern in the United States, where the Obama administration has seen Manila as a key ally in its "rebalance" of resources to Asia in the face of a rising China.
The administration agreed a deal with Mr Duterte's predecessor granting US forces rotational access to bases in the Philippines and further doubts will be raised about the future of this arrangement.
However, a White House spokesman stressed the traditional bonds between Washington and Manila when asked about Mr Duterte's comments and stuck to a US approach of seeking to play down the Philippine leader's repeated attacks. "The US-Philippines alliance is built on a 70-year history, rich people-to-people ties, including a vibrant Filipino-American diaspora, and a long list of shared security interests," spokesman Ned Price said. "We also remain one of the Philippines' strongest economic partners; the current stock of U.S. foreign direct investment stands above US$4.7 billion." A few hours after Mr Duterte's speech, his top economic policymakers released a statement saying that, while Asian economic integration was "long overdue", that did not mean the Philippines was turning its back on the West. "We will maintain relations with the West but we desire stronger integration with our neighbours," said Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia in a joint statement. "We share the culture and a better understanding with our region."
China has pulled out all the stops to welcome Mr Duterte, including a marching band complete with baton-twirling band master at his official greeting ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People, which is not extended to most leaders.
President Xi Jinping, meeting Mr Duterte earlier in the day, called the visit a "milestone" in ties.
Mr Xi told Mr Duterte that China and the Philippines were brothers and they could "appropriately handle disputes", though he did not mention the South China Sea in remarks made in front of reporters. "I hope we can follow the wishes of the people and use this visit as an opportunity to push China-Philippines relations back on a friendly footing and fully improve things," Mr Xi said.