U.S. Power Key to Countering China in Asia, Duterte Envoy Says

(Bloomberg) -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sees the U.S. military as essential to reining in China in Southeast Asia, according to his new envoy to Washington D.C.

Jose Manuel Romualdez, who will take up the position before President Donald Trump’s visit to Manila in November, said in an interview that the Philippines would object to further Chinese efforts to strengthen its position in the South China Sea. China opposes any role for the U.S. in resolving territorial disputes in the waters among the six claimants.

“The role they play is just to make sure that China just doesn’t do what they want to do,” Romualdez said on Thursday in Manila, referring to the U.S. military. “If China continues with its path of building and building, President Duterte will not agree to that.”

The comments reflect a shift in rhetoric since Duterte famously announced last year that he wanted to “cut the cord” with Washington on a trip to Beijing. Over the past two months, the U.S. has provided vital assistance to Philippine forces battling Islamic State-linked militants near Duterte’s hometown on the southern island of Mindanao, including two brand-new single-engine Cessna 208B surveillance planes.

Duterte’s foreign policy positions were still evolving from the U.S.-centric stance of his predecessors, Romualdez said. The Philippine president is scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a visit to Manila this weekend to attend a regional meeting of top diplomats, he said.

Alliance ‘Strong’

“Our military of course, is very much tied to the U.S., so that alliance remains strong and good,” Romualdez said, adding that the U.S. remained the Philippines’s strongest partner in fighting terrorism.

Since taking office last year, Duterte has advocated closer ties with China as part of a more a independent foreign policy for the Philippines. He has ignored an international court ruling dashing China’s regional maritime claims in a case brought by his predecessor, helping him to secure $24 billion in loan and investment pledges from Beijing.

U.S. Power Key to Countering China in Asia, Duterte Envoy Says

The Philippines’s policy of being a “friend to all and enemy to none” allowed it to benefit from all alliances, Romualdez said, adding that his country was only pursuing what was in its best interests.

“The main thing that we need to do is to make sure that our relationship with them is on an even keel,” Romualdez said. “By that I mean that our relationship doesn’t go too far away from where we are today or too far away to the other side.”

A former media executive and columnist with the Philippine Star newspaper, Romualdez said he wants to engage U.S. lawmakers in order to clarify Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, and invite American investors to participate in the Philippines’ $170 billion infrastructure program. His appointment is still awaiting confirmation by the Philippine congress.