Duterte to Tillerson: I'm your humble friend in Southeast Asia
MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte presented himself as a "humble friend" of the United States in his first meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the first high-ranking official of the Trump administration he has met.
"I'm your humble friend in Southeast Asia," said Duterte as he welcomed Tillerson and other Washington officials to Malacañang on Monday, August 7.
The remark, made before he asked his Cabinet officials to shake hands with their American counterparts, was not part of the longer message he had for Tillerson when they were all seated.
Philippine and US media were able to witness the first part of the meeting. The rest of it transpired behind closed doors.
"I think the world is not so good especially in the Korean Peninsula," said the Philippine President.
He also mentioned the "ever nagging problem" of the South China Sea, after which, he assured Tillerson, "We are friends, we are allied."
North Korea and the maritime dispute were among the topics that dominated the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings among foreign ministers.
Only last Saturday, August 5, the ASEAN foreign ministers voiced "grave concerns" over the escalation of tensions in the Korean Peninsula and the missile tests launched by North Korea.
It was also during one of the ASEAN meetings that Tillerson, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop expressed "their strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions" in the disputed South China Sea, or what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.
They also urged the Philippines and China to abide by the international arbitral tribunal's decision in 2016 that nullified Beijing's claim of the West Philippine Sea. This landmark victory of the Philippines has been downplayed by the Duterte administration with focus shifting to improving economic ties with China.
Duterte's words to Tillerson are in stark contrast to public statements he has made against the US, even during the administration of US President Donald Trump.
On the South China Sea dispute, Duterte has criticized America for telling the Philippines to raise the arbitral tribunal's ruling with China when it did not send troops to help protect islands in the West Philippine Sea from Beijing's reclamation activities.
In a bid to curry favor with Beijing, Duterte declared economic and military "separation" from the US during his state visit to China.
The proclamation was preceded by harsh words from Duterte for former US president Barack Obama who criticized him for his bloody campaign against illegal drugs.