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WASHINGTON – When the Philippines appeared to jilt its old ally the United States in favor of China this week, it repudiated not only President Obama and his “pivot” to Asia, but also Hillary Clinton, who made reaching out to the region her signature project as his secretary of state.
The White House said on Friday that it was troubled by the statements made by President Rodrigo Duterte during a visit to Beijing, in which he announced a “separation” of the Philippines from the United States, a treaty ally, and said it was “time to say goodbye, my friend.”
More than anything, the administration appears baffled by Mr. Duterte. He is a flamboyant figure, given to volcanic outbursts. On Friday, his own trade minister tried to pull back much of what his boss had said.
“I’ve dubbed that person the Filipino Mike Pence,” joked the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, suggesting that Mr. Duterte was a Filipino Donald J. Trump. Later in the day, Mr. Duterte himself insisted that by “separation” he meant only that the Philippines planned to be more independent of the United States.
Mrs. Clinton has not addressed the turmoil between Manila and Washington since last month, when she said Mr. Obama was right to cancel a meeting with Mr. Duterte after he had unleashed a profanity-laden diatribe against Mr. Obama.
But a senior official in the Clinton campaign said she shared the White House’s concerns about the Philippine leader’s latest statements.
If anything, a rift would be even more personal for Mrs. Clinton than for Mr. Obama. As secretary of state, she laid the groundwork for the president’s focus on Asia and, in particular, his reassertion of America’s presence in Southeast Asia. In 2011, she stood on the deck of a Navy warship in Manila Bay to dramatize support for an ally then entangled in territorial disputes with China over reefs and islands in the South China Sea.
A year earlier, Mrs. Clinton thrust the United States into this long-running conflict, saying the United States had a stake in seeing these disputes resolved in a way that guaranteed American ships freedom of navigation through the South China Sea’s busy shipping lanes.
It was one of her first big initiatives as secretary of state. She kept raising it with the Chinese throughout her time at the State Department, and she said later that she viewed the South China Sea as a litmus test in a broader geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China.
“They have the right to assert themselves,” Mrs. Clinton said in a closed-door speech to executives from Goldman Sachs in 2013, which was published by WikiLeaks. “But if nobody’s there to push back to create a balance, then they’re going to have a chokehold on the sea lanes and also on the countries that border the South China Sea.”
(THE NEW YORK TIMES)