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Philippines wants US to remain top military ally, Yasay says

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The US will remain the most important partner for the Philippines even as Rodrigo Duterte improves ties with China, his foreign secretary said ahead of the president's trip to Beijing.

[MANILA] The US will remain the most important partner for the Philippines even as Rodrigo Duterte improves ties with China, his foreign secretary said ahead of the president's trip to Beijing.

"We have a special relationship with the US," Perfecto Yasay, the country's top diplomat, said in an interview Thursday in his office in Manila. "They are our only military ally. You could not put the United States, in that sense, in equal footing with China."

The US has been the Philippines' closest ally since independence in 1946, and the nations are linked by formal defense treaties. But those ties have been strained since Mr Duterte took office three months ago, with the tough-talking leader frequently calling the relationship into question.

Mr Yasay, 69, himself delivered a scathing attack on the US in an essay posted on his Facebook page last week, accusing the US of holding onto "invisible chains that reined us in towards dependency and submission as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom."

On Thursday, Mr Yasay backed Mr Duterte's recent tirades, saying the president's strong words and attacks had made the US take notice of the Philippines instead of taking the country for granted.

Mr Yasay, who was Mr Duterte's roommate at university, is a newcomer to international diplomacy. He is a lawyer by trade and served as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1995 to 2000. He is also relatively new to politics, having never held elected office, with an unsuccessful bid for the vice presidency in 2010.

While he has often supported Mr Duterte's call for closer relations with China and his desire to hold direct talks with Beijing about territorial disputes in the South China Sea, he and other senior ministers have at other times sought to calm fears that overtures toward China will weaken the alliance with the US.

Mr Yasay said the Philippines was open to further military exercises with the US "if these joint exercises are designed to help us build our own capabilities in defense and in enforcement, disaster response and so on." Mr Duterte had said last month the latest joint maritime drills would be the last.

The foreign secretary also sought to explain Mr Duterte's call earlier this month for US President Barack Obama to "go to hell", saying it was frustration with what the Philippine leader believed was Washington's refusal to sell weapons to his nation because it disapproved of Mr Duterte's deadly drug war. According to police data, as many as 3,700 suspects may have been killed since July 1.

"If you want to help us," Mr Yasay added, referring to the US, "then you help us without strings attached." Mr Yasay will accompany Mr Duterte on next week's state visit to China, along with up to 400 business leaders. The diplomat said the Philippines wanted better ties with China after it had been neglected under the previous administration led by Benigno Aquino.

"I'd like to let everyone know that that this trip is not to engage China in bilateral negotiations with respect to our disputes in the South China Sea," Mr Yasay said, adding his nation would proceed with caution on pledges of business and investment from China.

"You don't want to place your eggs in one basket when you engage any country for that matter, in so far as trade relationships are concerned," he said. "You would always want to make sure that when you do something, decide on something, it is always be for the purpose of national interest." China angered the Aquino administration in 2012 when it seized Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop located around 240 kilometres off the coast of the Philippines.

Mr Aquino subsequently challenged China's claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. The tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines in July, after China had already reclaimed some 3,200 acres (1,290 hectares) on rocks and reefs.

"I do not believe at this point in time that China is intending reclamation projects in the Scarborough Shoal," Mr Yasay said. "I could be wrong but this is what I believe in." Mr Yasay said it was time to give China a breather. "Let's give them a face-saving mechanism," he said. "As much as we would like them also to give us some face-saving mechanism. Let's work together in making sure that these provisional arrangements can come about."

Mr Yasay said the Philippines was seeking support from China related to infrastructure development, agriculture and trade. He said the Philippines was also interested in reviving talks related to Chinese investment in rail and telecommunications that had fallen apart under previous administrations, and would consider possible arms purchases from China.

"This is something that we have to take into very serious consideration," Mr Yasay said. "For the most part, it will just be a window shopping on these things, maybe for small things with respect to our fight against violent extremism."

BLOOMBERG