MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Wednesday he wants US troops out of his country in the next two years and is willing to scrap defence pacts with longtime ally Washington if necessary.
The comments follow a series of anti-American tirades by the firebrand leader, who has repeatedly attacked the US while cosying up to Beijing, upending his nationâ€™s foreign policy in comments that have sometimes been quickly retracted.
“I want, maybe in the next two years, my country free of the presence of foreign military troops,” Duterte told an economic forum in Tokyo, in a clear reference to US forces.
“I want them out and if I have to revise or abrogate agreements, executive agreements, I will,” he added.
The US, which once operated sprawling bases in the country, now has a small number of Special Forces on the southern island of Mindanao to aid in counter-terrorism operations.
Duterte has previously said he wants US troops out of Mindanao because their presence stokes tensions on the island where Islamic militants have waged a decades-long separatist insurgency.
“These special forces, they have to go,” DuterteÂ “I do not want a rift with America. But they have to go.
Duterteâ€™s aides frequently attempt to walk back his controversial comments, and Wednesday was no exception.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, asked at a subsequent press conference to clarify the remarks, said that Duterte did not mean US troops would be ousted, stressing that “our national interests still continue to converge”.
The acid-tongued leader arrived in Tokyo Tuesday on his first visit to Japan since taking office June 30, looking to persuade executives his country is “open for business”, after overturning Manila’s traditional diplomatic alliances.
The 71-year-old has also slammed Washington for questioning his violent crime crackdown, which has claimed some 3,700 lives and attracted widespread international criticism.
Duterte has also insulted President Barack Obama, calling him a “son of a whore” and announcing a “separation” from the US during a visit to Beijing last week.
Although he quickly walked back from his comments, saying that “separation” did not mean he would “sever” ties, he reiterated his calls on Wednesday for an end to all joint war games with the US.
“This will be the last manoeuvre war games between the United States and the Philippines’ military,” he said of an event hosted in recent weeks by the Philippines.
Duterte later began a summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and will also meet with Emperor Akihito on Thursday.
Although his Japanese hosts depend on the US for security, Tokyo has so far not responded to Duterte’s diatribes, while Washington has taken a calm approach.
“We’re going to take the long view,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday.
“We’re not going to react and respond to every bit of rhetoric,” he added.
Abe had worked to improve bilateral relations with Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, providing patrol boats to support Manila in its territorial row with Beijing over rival claims to the South China Sea.
The Philippines took Beijing to an international tribunal over its extensive claims in the region and won a resounding victory in July.
But Duterte has not pressed the issue with Beijing, instead working to improve ties and attract billions of dollars in Chinese loans and investments.
Duterte also attempted to calm worries in Japan over his trip to China, assuring his audience that he was not seeking military ties with Beijing, just a closer economic relationship.
“We did not talk about arms, we did not talk about stationing of troops,” he said. “We avoided talking about alliances, military or otherwise.”