Kerry confident U.S. and Philippines can 'work through' Duterte confusion

October 24, 2016 2:59 PM EDT

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about Syria during a joint news conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se after the Central Asia Ministerial at the State Department in Washington, U.S. October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas


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By David Brunnstrom and Manuel Mogato

WASHINGTON/MANILA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is confident after speaking to his Philippine counterpart that the two countries can "work through" a period of confusion caused by anti-American rhetoric from President Rodrigo Duterte, the State Department said on Monday.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Kerry expressed concern in his conversation on Sunday with Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay about the tone of remarks by the Philippine president, who has sharply criticized President Barack Obama and talked of separation from Washington.

At the same time, Kerry emphasized strong and stable ties between the longtime allies, while Kirby said Washington had seen no practical action by Manila to move away from those.

Kerry's conversation with Yasay came after Duterte provoked alarm last week by announcing a "separation" from the United States and realignment with China during a visit to Beijing.

Although Duterte said later he did not really mean separation, his remarks added to concerns about the future of a U.S.-Philippine military cooperation pact seen as crucial to projecting U.S. power in Asia in the face of fast-rising China.

Earlier on Monday, the most senior U.S. diplomat for Asia, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel, said in Manila that Washington remained a "trusted" ally to the Philippines and supported its blossoming ties with China.

Russel was the first high-level visitor from Washington since Duterte's remarks and Kirby said that both Russel and Kerry made clear the United States had every intention of continuing to meet its security commitments to the Philippines.

"The tone and tenor of the discussions that they had ... and the assurances that the Philippine side gave to their commitment to keeping the relationship going was enough to lead the secretary and the assistant secretary to believe that we were going to be able to work through this," Kirby told a regular news briefing.

'REAL CLIMATE OF UNCERTAINTY'

In his comments to reporters, Russel said he had candidly told Yasay that Manila's friends were concerned about the high loss of life in Duterte's campaign against drugs and reiterated the importance of due process.

Russel said "a real climate of uncertainty about the Philippines' intentions had created consternation in many countries," including the United States. He said that worry extended beyond governments to corporate boardrooms and warned that it was "bad for business" in "a very competitive region."

Since Duterte took office on June 30, he has been scathing about U.S. criticism of his anti-drug campaign, in which about 2,300 people have been killed. But his ministers have repeatedly sought to soften his more outspoken remarks.

Explaining Duterte's "Goodbye America" remarks, Yasay said on Saturday the United States remained the "closest friend" of the Philippines but that Manila wanted to break away from a "mindset of dependency and subservience" and forge closer ties with other nations.

Russel said Duterte himself had "already walked back" his remarks and added that Washington supported direct dialogue and negotiations between the Philippines and China. "We don’t want countries to have to choose between the U.S. and China," he said.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Additional reporting by Enrico dela Cruz in Manila and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Peter Cooney)



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