MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte seeks to be a good neighbor to Beijing, Malacañang said on Monday, in connection to his recent pronouncements on China and its rival US.
Last Friday Duterte said Washington must "pay" if it wanted to keep a troop deal with Manila. In the same speech, he said he "cannot afford to be brave in the mouth against China because we are avoiding any confrontation."
Asked if this meant that the President was tough on the US and soft on China, his spokesman Harry Roque said, "Hindi naman totoo iyan."
"Ang ginagawa lang naman po ni Presidente ay nakikipagmabuting kapitbansa sa bansang Tsina dahil sa gustuhin at ayaw natin, talaga namang kapitbansa natin iyan ‘no," he said in an interview on the government's television network.
(The President is only being a good neighbor to China because whether we like it or not, it is our neighbor.)
"Sabi nga nila, kinakailangang makipagkasundo sa kapitbahay, maski hindi ka makipagkasundo sa kamag-anak ‘no. Importante po talaga na magkaroon tayo ng mainit na pagsasama sa ating mga kapitbansa in the same way na importante iyong pagiging mabuting kapitbahay natin sa ating mga lokalidad."
(As they say, you need to be in harmony with your neighbor, even if you are not in harmony with your relatives. It is important for us to have warm ties with our neighboring countries, in the same way that it is important to be a good neighbor in our communities.)
The government wants "just compensation" for its Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows US troops and equipment in the Philippines, making it a "valid military target" if Washington engages in war, Roque said in a media briefing.
"Pagdating naman po sa Amerika ay matagal na po kasi natin ito hinihingi sa kanila na magbayad ng tama," he said in the interview.
(When it comes to America, we have long asked them to pay right.)
The Philippines has received $3.9 billion from the US, while Pakistan got $16.4 billion, Roque said, quoting a study on Washington's counterterrorism spending from 2002 to 2017.
“Pakistan got $16 billion. We think we should get something similar or close to that amount, but definitely not the amount we are currently getting,” said the Palace spokesman.
“For now, what the President wants is if you want to continue using our territory, we want just compensation for it—hindi barya, hindi bulok na mga equipment. Iyong mga dumating pong equipment, binili po natin iyan, hindi po iyan ibinigay,” added Roque.
(We want just compensation for it—not a pittance, not outdated equipment. The equipment that have arrived, we bought those; those were not given to us.)
Duterte unilaterally canceled the two-decade-old VFA last year, in an angry response to an ally being denied a visa. The withdrawal period has been twice extended, however, to create what Philippine officials have said is a window for better terms.
"We at the defense department and the armed forces, the general feeling is for the VFA to continue," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told ANC on Thursday.
Philippine and US officials this week met to settle differences over the VFA. The meeting is the first under the administration of Donald Trump's successor, Joe Biden, who reaffirmed the alliance in the face of China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Beijing has refused to recognize a ruling that junked its sweeping claims to the resource-rich waterway, including parts of the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
Ties between the US and its former colony have been complicated by Duterte's rise to power in 2016 and his frequent statements condemning US foreign policy, and open embrace of China.
But while the Philippines-US relationship "has always been strong", Lorenzana said the country "should not be made to choose" between Washington and Beijing.
Lorenzana has also expressed concern about a new Chinese law empowering coastguard to fire on what it sees as threats, and repeated US navy patrols that China sees as provocations.
He said he told his US counterpart Lloyd Austin that "we don't want any miscalculations or accidents in the South China Sea because we are right smack there in the center of conflict."
— With a report from Reuters