"It need not dovetail the foreign policy of America. That's what I meant," Duterte told reporters after arriving in Manila from a four-day trip to China. "It's not severance of ties.... I cannot do that."
Earlier, Duterte’s own trade minister, Ramon Lopez, sought to "clarify" the comment. “The president did not talk about separation,” he told CNN — apparently trying to finesse the word used by Duterte.
“In terms of economic [ties], we are not stopping trade, investment with America,” he said.
But Lopez did not attempt further interpretation of Duterte's remarks and the apparent pro-China shift in the country's global outlook. Duterte "has decided to strengthen further and rekindle the ties with China and the ASEAN region," Lopez said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The spin-doctoring comes less than 24 hours after Duterte met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, agreed to resume bilateral talks on maritime disputes in the South China Sea, then effectively asked the United States for a divorce. “Your honors, in this venue I announce my separation from the United States ... both in military and economics also,” Duterte said.
Lopez's damage control is the latest in a string of flip-flops, walk-backs and backtracks that have come to define Duterte's tenure, leaving Filipino and foreign observers unsure where rhetoric ends and real policy moves begin.
Duterte, a longtime mayor, swept to power in July, promising "war" on drug users and criminals. During his campaign, he talked about shelving maritime quarrels if China built a railway on his home island, then vowed to ride a jet ski a contested shoal in the South China Sea to plant the Philippine flag in a rebuke of China's claims.
Four months into his tenure, his plans and platform are still in question. Every few days, he makes a comment that could, if pursued, redefine the regional order. The next day, one of his ministers or spokesmen is forced to walk the comment back.
When Duterte threatened to end annual military exercises with the United States, his foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay, was caught by surprise. When the president called for the withdrawal of U.S. Special Forces from the southern island of Mindanao, he did not bother to tell the U.S. Embassy.
His slurs span the globe: President Obama, Pope Francis and the European Union, among others.
And so it is again. State Department spokesman John Kirby on Thursday said Duterte’s remarks declaring a separation from the United States are “inexplicably at odds with the very close relationship” between the two countries.
“We are going to be seeking an explanation of exactly what the president meant when he talked about separation from us,” he said. “It’s not clear to us exactly what that means and all its ramifications.”
Many Filipinos are also perplexed. Though opinion polls suggest the president remains popular at home, his anti-U.S. rhetoric is at odds with public opinion. The vast majority of Filipinos hold a positive view of the United States; many are skeptical of China.
On Friday, the Philippines' former foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, denounced Duterte's latest move as "unwise and incomprehensible."
"What is unfolding before us must be considered a national tragedy which does not need to happen," he said in a statement.
"It is our earnest hope that this most unfortunate declaration will be corrected."