The White House said on Wednesday the United States has not formally communicated with the Philippines government about threats to sever military ties between the two countries.
The White House statement comes on the same day Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to cut military ties with the United States for the second time in as many days.
Duterte spoke Wednesday during an economic forum in Tokyo, where he is in the second day of a three-day official visit to a key U.S. ally in the region. He said he wants the Philippines "free of the presence of foreign military troops" within the next two years, even if he as to "revise or abrogate agreements."
A small number of U.S. troops are posted on the southern island of Mindanao to assist in counter-terrorism operations against a homegrown Islamic insurgency.
Duterte was scheduled to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has emphasized Tokyo's strong ties with Washington as a counter balance to Beijing's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
The combative, 71-year-old Duterte has directed a string of angry tirades and threats at the United States in response to criticism over his violent anti-drug campaign that has killed nearly 4,000 people since he assumed office on June 30. During a state visit to China last week, he declared his intention to cut off all ties with the U.S., but later reversed himself.
US vs China
Duterte's expressions of anti-U.S. rage are in stark contrast to his pursuit of accommodation and cooperation with Beijing. Long before his trip to Beijing, he said he would not bring up a ruling by an international tribunal that dismissed China's aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea and violated Manila's sovereign rights by interfering with Philippine fishing and oil exploration activities in the area.
The Philippine leader tried to assure the audience at Wednesday's forum that he is simply seeking closer economic ties with China, not its military.
Later, Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay attempted to clarify President Duterte's remarks, telling reporters that Manila would continue to honor all agreements with Washington because "our national interests still continue to converge."
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that Duterte's remarks have not altered relations between the U.S. and the Philippines.
"We’ve seen these comments. They are at odds, inexplicably at odds, with this relationship that we continue to enjoy and you’ve already seen cases where the president himself and even his cabinet officials have walked back some of these statements," he said.
"So were not going to respond and react to every bit of rhetoric. We’re going to continue to work at this relationship. We’re going to continue to meet our obligations under the defense treaty. We haven’t seen any policy traction behind it. In other words, there hasn’t been any change, tangible changes, to the policies and to the programs that both our nations are implementing and executing on a daily basis."
Asian Society analyst Stephen Rood in Manila told VOA that Duterte's comments indicates some real policy changes may be ahead.
"There definitely is a possibility of that. He has definitely combined a very practical dollars and sense attitude towards China with his suspicion and distaste for the United States to cause a considerable rebalance. Now the professionals in his cabinet are saying that he doesn’t mean a separation, he just means more regional integration with ASEA [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and Asia in general, so we’ll see whether that continues."
Rood said a key player in any policy reassessment will be the current defense minister and retired general, Delfin Lorenzana, who has a longstanding relationship with Washington.
"He has actually asked the defense secretary to talk to the cabinet next week about what are the advantages of the relationship with the United States because, as the defense secretary said, the president hasn’t discussed any of this with him and when he brought this up with the president, the president said ok, discuss this."
The U.S. has troops in five Philippine military camps, the result of a security agreement that was signed before Duterte became president to counter China's growing military assertiveness in Asia.
Victor Beattie also contributed to this report.