TOKYO - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte softened his remarks about a "separation" from long-time ally the United States on the eve of a visit to Japan, a country worried about Manila's apparent pivot away from Washington and towards China.
"The alliances are alive," Duterte told Japanese media in Manila on Monday, Kyodo News reported. "There should be no worry about changes of alliances. I do not need to have alliances with other nations."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to keep ties with the Phillipines tight during Duterte's visit to Japan, starting on Tuesday.
Duterte, a former prosecutor and mayor who has had a series of outbursts against the United States since taking office in June, jolted the region last week on a trip to China, when he announced Manila's "separation" from Washington and realignment toward Beijing.
Duterte's aides and the president himself later tried to clarify that he did not mean he was cutting ties with the United States and his remarks on Monday were the most conciliatory yet.
Duterte told the Japanese media he had been expressing a personal opinion, not speaking for the government when he mentioned separating from Washington, the Nikkei newspaper said. He said he only plans to have an "alliance of trade and commerce" with China, Kyodo reported.
Abe, who has sought to strengthen ties with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries as a counter-balance to a rising Beijing, will be trying to wed Manila to Tokyo's side without prompting a backlash that pushes it closer to China.
"It's certainly unfortunate and we are worried, but such things will not change Japan's commitment to the Philippines," said Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and former defense official, referring to Duterte's comments.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry is confident after speaking with Phillipine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay on Sunday that the two countries can "work through" a period of confusion caused by Duterte's remarks, the State Department said.