Philippines won't be 'lackey' to anyone: incoming foreign minister

Philippines' President-elect Rodrigo Duterte answers questions during a news conference in Davao City, southern Philippines May 31, 2016. REUTERS/Lean Daval (Reuters)

By Manuel Mogato and Karen Lema MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines will not distance itself from its long-time security ally, the United States, but neither will it be a lackey to any foreign power, incoming Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay told Reuters on Wednesday. In his first interview with the foreign media since being appointed by President-elect Rodrigo Duterte, the lawyer by training sought to underline the Philippines' independence in dealing with disputes with China over the South China Sea. "We should not be a lackey of any nation," Yasay said in Manila, the day after Duterte named his cabinet. Under outgoing President Benigno Aquino, the Philippines moved closer to Washington, in turn straining ties with China. Yasay said relations with China should improve. "For as long as it (China) adheres to the rule of law, respects our territorial integrity and sovereignty...we should continue to make sure that our friendship and relationship would be stronger," he said. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the door was always open to dialogue, which would be helpful for "breaking the deadlock" in China-Philippines relations in recent years. "If the Philippines sincerely wish to come back to the track of dialogue and negotiations we welcome that," Wang told reporters in the Canadian capital Ottawa. "We would be happy to see the new government in the Philippines make wise choices." Duterte, the tough-talking mayor who takes office on June 30, said on Tuesday that the Philippines would not rely on Washington, signaling a potential shift in approach to the South China Sea and broader security issues. "He was simply articulating the position that, according to the constitution, we are supposed to carry an independent foreign policy," Yasay said of Duterte's remarks. Yasay added that the president-elect would honor existing treaties with the United States, including the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that allows U.S. troops increased access to local bases. U.S. President Barack Obama called Duterte on May 17 to congratulate him on his election win. "That was a very strong indication about our friendship with America not being affected, and will not be affected by his election," Yasay said. At the same time, Duterte has not ruled out renegotiating agreements in the future if it was deemed necessary. "When he said he is committed to agreements we have entered into...he does not discount the possibility that in the future, if it is determined that there is a need to further negotiate on these agreements on the basis of pursuing the mutual interest of both countries, we should not hesitate to do so," Yasay said. The Supreme Court this year upheld the constitutionality of the agreement that lets the United States build warehouses and logistics hubs anywhere in the Philippines. Washington is also helping its former colony to bolster its defenses, providing three Hamilton-class cutters, radar equipment and a research ship that will arrive in July. The build-up is part of an effort by the Philippines to strengthen its claims in the disputed South China Sea, where China has been constructing artificial islands. Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines also have overlapping claims in the sea, believed to be rich in oil and gas and a key trade route through which an estimated $5 trillion worth of goods pass each year. Yasay, who has participated in global trade deals in the past, said Manila would respect whatever decision is handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, where the Philippines is challenging China's position on the disputed waters. It is not clear when a ruling will come. Duterte has said he was open to joint ventures with China to explore and exploit resources in the South China Sea. The Philippines was willing to pursue bilateral talks with China to resolve a dispute over the Scarborough Shoal, but would stick to multilateral discussions for the Spratly islands, because there were other claimant states, Yasay said. (Additonal reporting by David Ljunggren in OTTAWA.; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Lincoln Feast)