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MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte's statement against the presence of US forces in Mindanao does not signal a Philippine shift in policy on the United States, said Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr on Tuesday, September 13.
Yasay gave the assurance a day after Duterte said at a public address that he does not want the presence of US special forces in Mindanao, again citing the US pacification campaign in the island group in the early 1900s, that led to the death of hundreds of Moro rebels.
"There is no shift in so far as our policy is concerned with respect to our close friendship with the Americans," Yasay said in an interview on ANC.
Long-standing ties between the two countries will remain strong despite the recent statements of Duterte, he added.
Yasay said he would leave for the US that day to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and his first stop would be Washington DC. "This trip is proof of our good ties with the US," he said in an interview with radio dzMM.
"Our relationship with the US remains strong and it will continue to be strong."
'Concern' for US personnel
Yasay said the President's speech should not be a cause of concern as the President only wanted to protect Americans from kidnappings and terrorism as they had become "a very good target."
Duterte had said in his Monday speech, made before new presidential appointees in Malacañang, that he did not want US advisers in Mindanao as he did not want any of them kidnapped or killed by local terrorists.
In Washington, the Pentagon and State Department said they had not been officially contacted by Manila about pulling out the remaining advisers, who Yasay said now numbered about 100.
"We will continue to consult closely with our Filipino partners to appropriately tailor our assistance to whatever approach the new administration adopts," Pentagon spokesman Gary Ross said.
State Department spokesman John Kirby also said they were not aware of any official request from the Philippine government.
Since 2002, up to 600 US advisers have been deployed in the Mindanao region to train troops battling Muslim extremists but their numbers have been scaled down in recent years.
'Notice is served'
At a press briefing in Malacañang hours after Yasay was interviewed on local radio stations, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said Duterte's statement on US advisers in Mindanao will become the "basis of policy."
"It is not automatically policy but it is the basis of policy," Abella said.
Abella was also asked, given the President's statements, what would happen to the annual Philippine-US military exercises and the two countries' Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), wherein an airbase in Cagayan de Oro would be among the local military facilities that US troops would have access to.
He responded: "At this stage, those statements are not policy set in stone. Not policy yet. But these are backgrounders for possible future action. There's a difference isn't it?"
While the President's statement is not yet state policy, Abella said "notice is being served" to the US.
"I think this is where the President is beginning to elaborate more and more, on the fact that…the foreign policy that we have is an independent one and not dependent on one superior state or two from which we depend on," he said.
"These actions, these references he's making, are intended to communicate to one and all that we need to be ready to chart our own course and find our own alliances," Abella added.
Responding to questions, Abella said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is "aware" of the President's desire for Mindanao to be cleared of US special forces. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com