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Philippines President Duterte Wants to 'Separate' From 'Baffled' America

The Philippines has eyes for a new pair of suitors — Russia and China.
Image: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a news conference upon his arrival from Vietnam trip at the International Airport in Davao city
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a news conference upon his arrival from a state visit in Vietnam at the International Airport in Davao city, Philippines Sept. 30, 2016. REUTERS/Lean Daval JrLean Daval Jr. / Reuters

The United States isn't ready to call it quits just yet.

Not only had Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to break off what was once considered a stable and long-term relationship with the U.S., but he seemed to suggest the country had moved on. The Philippines has eyes for a new pair of suitors — Russia and China.

"I have separated from them," Duterte said of America to Chinese business leaders and elected officials Thursday in Beijing. "So I will be dependent on you for all time. But do not worry. We will also help as you help us."

Duterte, upon his return home Friday, had some explaining to do during a news conference. He told reporters he doesn’t want to completely dump America on all fronts, he clarified, but rather “separate” Manila’s foreign policy with Washington’s.

"It need not dovetail the foreign policy of America. That's what I meant," Duterte said. "It's not severance of ties ... I cannot do that."

Still, the Obama administration has been thrown off by the Philippines’ foreign affairs. What he meant by “separate” remained unclear.

Related: Philippine Leader Ditches U.S. for China, Says 'America Has Lost'

The ramifications — should Duterte go to extremes — could be far-reaching, impacting everything from trade to military support to a deep cultural connection with the West.

The Obama administration seemingly responded with shock and confusion, arguably shifting between the early stages of grief over the proposed breakup. First came confusion and disbelief.

A spokesperson on Thursday said the State Department was “baffled” by Duterte’s comments. The White House said it wasn’t given a courtesy call or told directly that it was being jilted.

“We are going to be seeking an explanation about what exactly the president meant when he talked about the separation from the U.S.,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby said. “We’re not clear what exactly that means in all its ramifications.”

Relations between the two countries had been on the rocks for months. The notoriously tough-talking Duterte earned a reputation after he called President Barack Obama a “son of a b****” and said he "can go to hell.” Obama responded by calling off a date with the Philippine president until he calmed down.

When Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel visits Manila this weekend — part of a trip through Asia that was planned prior to Duterte's comments — he will almost certainly be adding several sessions of relationship counseling to the agenda as the U.S. tries to smooth over the friction.

The Obama administration has been caught in a delicate dance in the region since Duterte first took office in June, balancing its criticism of the president's aggressive war on drugs while also pressing it to act as a counter-weight to China's expanding economic and military footprint in the region.

Related: Philippine President No Stranger to Controversial Statements

Duterte’s defiant stand comes during the waning days of Obama's second term, stoking a strong nationalist sentiment while eyeing opportunities to expand economic ties with China over the U.S. Just a day earlier about 1,000 anti-U.S. protesters clashed outside the U.S. Embassy in Manila with demands to remove American troops from the southern island of Mindanao.

“Duterte was effectively vocalizing a very strong strain of opinion in the Philippines,” said Bill Hayton, an associate of the Asia program at U.K-based think tank Chatham House. “The question, of course, is whether he can actually go through with this.”

Hayton said Duterte would likely face a number of practical limitations should he try to seal the separation. The president would need to repeal the Mutual Defense Treaty that has been in place with the U.S. since 1951. The split would also likely entail chipping away at the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that was brokered by Obama in 2014.

Most any action would require the cabinet to choose sides in the breakup, Hayton said, upping the obstacles toward actually implementing his plan.

Duterte did leave an opening on Thursday for the Philippines to at least remain friendly with the U.S. — at least for social situations.

Filipino immigrants make up one of the largest foreign-born groups in the U.S. More than 1.9 million Filipino immigrants have resettled in the U.S. as of the last year, the Migration Policy Institute found.

And the remittances that immigrants send home are a huge driver for the Philippine economy. According to the World Bank, Filipinos sent home $25 billion from the U.S. in 2013, accounting for 9 percent of the country’s GDP.

Richard Javad Heydarian, a political scientist at De La Salle University in Manila, said Duterte's remarks fall far outside popular opinion in the Philippines, where residents are largely faithful allies of the United States. And while saying that Duterte's "separation" talk should be taken with a grain of salt, Heydarian noted that the rhetoric isn't purely bluster.

"This is the new normal for U.S.-Philippine relations," Heydarian said.