Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced Thursday that he was "separating" from the United States and embracing China as the new best friend of the Philippines.
The 71-year-old president, famous for blunt, often profane rhetoric, announced his country's realignment in a state visit to Beijing, where he was hailed as China's new "brother.''
"Your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States … both in military, but also economics,'' Duterte said to thunderous applause at a forum inside the Great Hall of the People, the bastion of the Chinese Communist Party. Without the United States, he said addressing the Chinese audience, "I will be dependent on you."
During the visit, China and the Philippines are signing agreements for $13.5 billion in trade deals. The Philippines also said China had committed itself to $9 billion in low-interest loans. And the Philippines offered to open negotiations with China over disputed fishing waters in the South China Sea, a surprising change of policy given that an international tribunal in The Hague had ruled in July against China's claim of historical rights to the waters.
Duterte, who took office July 30, had other choice words for the United States during his Beijing visit. He said that "America has lost now" and suggested that he was also eager to cozy up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"I've realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia,'' he said. And as an added slap, Duterte mimicked an American accent and said: "Americans are loud, sometimes rowdy. Their larynx is not adjusted to civility.''
Duterte has been issuing increasingly anti-American rhetoric for months, mostly in reaction to U.S. criticism of a shoot-to-kill vigilante campaign against drug dealers and addicts. Since winning the presidential election in May, an estimated 3,500 people have been killed.
"Duterte doesn't like Western finger-wagging over human rights and he is not going to get that from China,'' said John Gershman, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service and a founder of the New York Southeast Asia Network.
Still, the unequivocal declaration by Duterte in Beijing came as a surprise to the Chinese and the Americans, Gershman believes.
"As far as I can tell, the United States was unprepared. I don't think anybody could imagine this could happen, or happen this quickly,'' said Gershman. "The Chinese must be very happy, but I don't think they could have dreamed of this opportunity.''
Chinese President Xi Jinping called the visit by Duterte a "milestone.''
"China and the Philippines are neighbors across the sea and the two peoples are blood brothers," Xi said.
At least for now, Duterte made no reference to canceling the mutual defense treaty with the United States, which dates to 1951. The previous U.S.-friendly administration of Benigno Aquino III had agreed to allow the United States stepped-up access to Philippine military bases, and that agreement apparently remains in effect.
Duterte's announcement is a blow to the Obama administration's much-heralded "pivot" to Asia. U.S. diplomats had pointed to warmer relations with Manila — and tension between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea — as evidence that the policy was succeeding.
The State Department said Thursday that it is baffled by Duterte's latest suggestion that the Philippines was separating from the U.S. and that it is seeking an explanation of what the Philippine leader meant.
Despite Duterte's increasingly fiery rhetoric aimed at the United States, coming as he made warm diplomatic gestures to erstwhile rival China, Washington "remains rock solid" in its commitment to the mutual defense treaty and to the two countries' 70-year alliance, State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
Duterte's hostility "is inexplicably at odds with the very close relationship that we have with the Filipino people as well as the government there, on many different levels," Kirby said.
"We are going to be seeking an explanation of exactly what the president meant when he talked about separation from the U.S.," Kirby said. "It's not clear to us exactly what that means in all its ramifications."
Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will travel to Manila this weekend on a previously scheduled trip and will raise the issue with officials there, Kirby said.
He said other countries in the region — presumably Japan and South Korea — are similarly confused by Duterte's outbursts and "where this is going ... what it portends."