MANILA - Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr. said he did not hear the part of President Rodrigo Duterte's speech where he said all regular Philippine-U.S. military exercises will be terminated.
Yasay said all of the Philippines' treaties with the U.S., including the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), will outlast Duterte's six-year term, and the President cannot abrogate the said agreements.
The only thing Duterte had ruled out were joint patrols beyond the Philippines' 12-nautical mile territorial waters, Yasay said.
"Our agreement, that will be respected and this is what the president clearly meant," Yasay told a scrum of reporters, referring to a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
Despite Yasay's words, Duterte's latest comments add to uncertainty about what his end game is and whether Manila's next moves could complicate regional diplomacy or alter the status quo in the South China Sea.
A U.S. defense official said he had not seen the Philippines make a formal request to stop sea patrols and added that the bar for a "joint patrol" with the Philippines was low.
"If the joint patrols stop, will this have any sort of major impact on the situation in the South China Sea? Most likely not," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He added that in a sign things were continuing as usual, the landing ship USS Germantown would be making a port call in Manila from Wednesday.
Richard Jacobson, an American security expert, said Duterte's posturing could embolden China to exploit a testy relationship between two old allies.
"The U.S.-Philippines relationship might become strained and even shaken," Jacobson said.
"The U.S. geopolitical stakes in the region are much too high to react to his hyperbole. The current attitude in Washington is mature - more of patience than feeling provoked."
The Philippines has not formally committed to joining the United States in patrols beyond its territorial waters in the South China Sea. It has carried out at least two patrols with the United States this year that remained within 12 nautical miles of the Philippine coast. - with a report from Reuters