MANILA, Philippines >> The Philippine president-elect said Tuesday that he recently asked the U.S. ambassador whether Washington will support the Philippines in case of a possible confrontation with China in the disputed South China Sea.
Rodrigo Duterte suggested in a speech in a business forum in southern Davao city that a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the allies does not automatically oblige Washington to immediately help if the Philippines gets into a confrontation with China over a territorial dispute.
Duterte said he asked U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg in a recent meeting, “Are you with us or are you not with us?” adding that Goldberg responded, “Only if you are attacked.”
In Washington, the State Department said it would not comment on the details of diplomatic conversations or on the possibility of the U.S. coming to the defense of the Philippines in the South China Sea. But it said the U.S.-Philippine alliance is “ironclad” and the U.S. would stand by its treaty commitments.
“President Obama has been clear that we will stand by our commitments to the Philippines, as we do any mutual defense treaty ally,” said Anna Richey-Allen, spokeswoman for the department’s East Asian and Pacific affairs bureau.
“Our dependability and reliability as an ally has been established over decades. Beyond that, we won’t comment on hypotheticals,” she said.
The treaty says each country will “act to meet the common dangers” if one is attacked. Filipino officials have asked in the past whether the U.S. would help if the Philippines gets into a confrontation with China over disputed territories in the South China Sea.
The U.S. takes no sides in the long-unresolved territorial disputes. Goldberg hasn’t commented publicly on his meeting with Duterte.
The long-simmering disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have escalated after Beijing transformed seven disputed reefs into islands, including three with aircraft runways, in the South China Sea. Some fear China can use the islands militarily to reinforce its claims and intimidate rival claimants.
Under outgoing President Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines challenged the validity of China’s vast claims under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea before an international arbitration tribunal, which is expected to hand down a ruling soon.
The move by Aquino’s administration has strained relations with Beijing.
Duterte said he would wait for the tribunal’s ruling before deciding his move but added he would not confront militarily superior China and risk losing Filipino troops.
“Why would I go to war?” he asked. “I will not waste the lives of people there.”
Duterte pointed out the benefits of nurturing friendly relations with Beijing, including a Chinese offer of financing railway projects in the Philippines.
The longtime mayor of Davao city, who starts his six-year term on June 30, said he would send his designated transport secretary, Arthur Tugade, to China “not to talk about war, not to talk about irritations there, but to talk about peace and how they can help us.”
Apparently referring to the U.S., Duterte asked, “Can you match the offer? Because if you cannot match the offer, I will accept the goodwill of China.”
Duterte has said he would be a left-leaning president and allowed communist guerrillas to recommend allies who were designated to at least two key posts in his Cabinet. Earlier this month, he said he would chart an independent foreign policy “and not be dependent on the United States,” the Philippines’ longtime ally.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.