PH-China ties 'shouldn't be at expense' of U.S. – envoy

MANILA, Philippines – Outgoing US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg praised the Philippines' push for better ties with China, but cautioned against pursuing this at the expense of the US. 

In a Rappler Talk interview with Maria Ressa, Goldberg also said the US will keep its friendship with the Philippines – if it can.  

"It's a good thing that the Philippines is having a better relationship with China, if that’s how it turns out. But it shouldn't be at the expense of a long-time friend and ally in the United States. And that’s what we’re trying to maintain," Goldberg said on Thursday, October 20. 

Goldberg also said he "can't really judge fully what the landscape will look like until we know exactly what the Duterte government has in mind."

He cited "other voices" saying that "this is just a way of improving relations with China."

"If that's what it is, it's a good thing, and it’s an important step in trying to improve the regional atmosphere. But if it's something more than that, we'll have to see," Goldberg said. 

Goldberg made these remarks days after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to cut ties with the US and strengthen alliances with China and Russia.

A few hours after Goldberg's interview with Rappler on Thursday, Duterte announced in China his "separation from the United States" in economic and military terms. The President was in China for a 4-day state visit to boost ties with Beijing.  

In the face of Duterte’s remarks against the US, Goldberg stressed the strong economic and military ties between Manila and Washington.

Pivot to China

Goldberg, for one, said during the Rappler interview: "The largest private employer in the Philippines is an American company. The larger exporter from the Philippines is an American company. We are, if not, the largest foreign direct investor here."

Goldberg also said that 43% of remittances from overseas Filipino workers "go through the United States, or originate in the United States."

Data from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), in fact, show that the US is the Philippines' third largest trading partner, next to Japan and China. 

Trade between Manila and Washington amounts to $16.491 billion favoring the Philippines, according to a fact sheet provided by the DFA in September.

At the same time, the US is keeping delicate relations with China as Washington pursues a rebalance to Asia. 

America's rebalance to Asia – or "pivot," as it is sometimes called – has been a cornerstone of US President Barack Obama's foreign policy, with a shifting of focus away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region.

Goldberg explained that the rebalance to Asia "was based on the idea that there's a rise of China, there's a rise of Southeast Asia economically, demographically."

"Our future prosperity and our future generally is tied to this region, and that's the essence of the rebalance, and it’s very much tied to China’s rise as well," the US ambassador said.

As Duterte in turn pursues a pivot to China, Goldberg said: "I hope that your relationship with China is a good one. I hope your relationship with the United States is a good one."

"I don't think this is a zero-sum game," he said. "If someone wants to make it a zero-sum game, then we will probably have disagreements and differences that could lead to a kind of divide between us. That's what I'm trying to prevent."

Former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, who once served as ambassador to the US, earlier also warned against treating foreign policy as a zero-sum game. Del Rosario on Friday, October 21, in fact described Duterte's US policy as a "national tragedy." 

Goldberg added in his interview with Rappler: "We're maintaining our programs and our friendship with the Philippines, and we'll do that if we can. But some of those things are going to be done here and not up to us." – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com

WATCH: Full interview with Ambassador Goldberg

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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