Philippine Foreign Minister Reassures on Strong U.S. Relations

(Bloomberg) -- The Philippines will maintain its alliance with the U.S. but will go own way when it disagrees and won’t be lectured on human rights, Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said in Washington.

Yasay’s remarks Thursday amounted to a defense of new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose crackdown on illegal drugs has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people without judicial proceedings and has drawn accusations of human rights violations. Duterte also has called for U.S. troops to leave the restive southern island of Mindanao and suggested a willingness to seek closer ties with China.

“The president is firmly committed to keep and respect its alliances, including that with the United States,” Yasay said in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Philippines is unequivocally committed to the rule of law.”

Duterte, elected this year, has repeatedly stressed the need for an “independent foreign policy" and questioned the U.S.’s willingness to intervene if China were to seize territory in the South China Sea as part of a continuing territorial dispute there. His statements have raised broad concerns in Washington that the former U.S. colony is realigning its priorities away from Washington.

‘Mutual Respect’

“We work together in mutual respect, and we work together very closely promoting our mutual interests,” Yasay said. “On the other hand, if these interests would be in conflict one way or another, you must realize that the paramount national interest must always be pursued.”

Yasay sought to downplay the controversy surrounding comments by Duterte, who had warned President Barack Obama that “I will curse you” if the American president criticized him and called United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “a fool.” He also sought to tamp down concerns that the Philippines will forsake its agreements with the U.S.

Duterte’s call for U.S. troops to leave Mindanao, a Muslim-majority area long riven by insurgency and terrorism, would be a temporary measure to keep them out of harm’s way, he said. The drug war aims to reintegrate law-breakers into society and will be conducted with respect for human rights.

“He is a man of uncommon courage, a leader governed by fundamental principles of truth-telling, fair play and compassion,” Yasay said of Duterte. “Some may think of him as unconventional. That is because he hates double-talk.”