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.

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

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.

But Yasay added that the president-elect would honour existing treaties with the United States, including the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that allows U.S. troops increased access to local bases.

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 defences, 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.

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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