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US to continue working productively with Philippines

Pia Lee-Brago - The Philippine Star
US to continue working productively with Philippines

“It’s a relationship that we value and what I can say unequivocally is we’re going to continue to work productively with the Philippines where we can,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told Filipino journalists Wednesday. Twitter/Mark Toner

WASHINGTON – The United States will continue to work constructively and productively with the Philippines despite persistent human rights concerns under the Duterte administration.

“It’s a relationship that we value and what I can say unequivocally is we’re going to continue to work productively with the Philippines where we can,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told Filipino journalists Wednesday.

“I can say the willingness of the US to work constructively with the Philippines remains,” he said.

Human rights concerns, he said, can be discussed even while efforts are being made to further strengthen relations between the two countries.

“We’ll sometimes have concerns certainly about human rights. It’s one of those concerns but we also believe in our relationship with the Philippines. We can talk about these areas of concern at the same time we pursue a very productive and forward looking bilateral relationship,” Toner said.

The previous Obama administration had “privately” raised its concerns about extrajudicial killings in the country, to which President Duterte responded with profanity directed at the then US leader.

The US, Toner emphasized, has a long and enduring security relationship with the Philippines and Washington is seeking always to improve such relationship. “We want to make this relationship even stronger,” he added.

The US commitment to the Philippines and the Mutual Defense Treaty, as declared by Obama during his two visits in Manila in 2014 and 2015, is “ironclad.”

The State Department official said the US welcomes Manila’s improving relations with China and even with Moscow, saying Washington does not view the development as a “zero sum game.”

“We believe the Philippines can have an objective relationship with China and that will not weaken its relationship with the US,” Toner said.

“Our focus is on obviously strengthening of relations but we’re mindful it’s good for the region. It’s good for the stability of the region if the Philippines has strong and productive relationship with China,” he pointed out.

He also said the Philippines is not in the US government’s list of countries “of concern,” and that Filipino travelers have nothing to worry about.

Toner said the executive order on travel ban signed last week by President Donald Trump does not include the Philippines.

The EO temporarily bans refugees and travelers to the US from seven Muslim-majority countries – Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Trump’s order has sparked widespread condemnation.

“This is a decision that President Trump made in the interest of national security, in the interest of the United States. He said very clearly that his first priority is to protect American citizens,” Toner told Filipino journalists.

“And so he wants to conduct a review on some of the processes by which people travel to the US. The Philippines was not on these countries that were labeled ‘of concern’ and so I would say the Philippines and the Filipinos, by all means, we welcome them to the US,” he added.

No ambassador

In Davao City, President Duterte said he is not keen on sending an ambassador to the US.

“No ambassador in the US. I do not feel like sending one,” the President told a gathering of more than 2,000 representatives of water districts all over the country at the SMX Convention Center yesterday.

It has been seven months since the Philippines had an ambassador in Washington.

Last December, the President appointed The STAR columnist Jose Manuel Romualdez as the country’s ambassador to the US. But Romualdez later declined the appointment due to an eye ailment. He said his doctor had advised him against traveling by air as it might aggravate his eye condition. – With Edith Regalado

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