MANILA • The United States and the Philippines have launched war games against the backdrop of American forces being ejected from the South-east Asian nation, with the latter's leader pivoting to China.
As the annual joint amphibious landing exercises in the Philippine island of Luzon kicked off yesterday, US and Philippine personnel were seen linking arms and chatting at an opening ceremony in Manila.
"We share a unique and enduring bond in this region," said US Marine Brigadier-General John Jansen in a speech, adding that every year, "we are offered an invitation to strengthen our relationship" through the exercises.
A total of 2,000 troops from both sides are taking part in the war games, including in waters close to flashpoint areas of the disputed South China Sea. The US Embassy in Manila said last month that US marines based in Okinawa, Japan, will participate in this year's Philippines Amphibious Landing Exercise codenamed Phiblex 33 together with Philippine troops.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had said during a visit to Vietnam last week that he was "serving notice now to the Americans" that this year's Phiblex, which wraps up on Oct 12, will be the last joint war games that will take place during his term, which ends in 2022.
He also said over the weekend that he would review security arrangements with the US, including the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement signed in 2014.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman said on Monday that the US had not been contacted by the Philippine defence authorities about the ending of the joint exercises. State Department spokesman Elizabeth Trudeau told reporters: "I'd also note that we'll live up to our commitments and we'll expect them to live up to theirs."
To counter China, former Philippine president Benigno Aquino had sought to draw the US closer. Mr Duterte appears intent on adopting the opposite tactic, saying recently he hopes to travel to China and meet President Xi Jinping. He has also said there will be no joint sea patrols with the US.
Still, his comments have not filtered down into government policy, and it remains unclear to what extent he is prepared to damage ties with America. "The relationship has not changed as of today," Philippine defence department spokesman Arsenio Andolong said on Monday, referring to the ties between the Philippines and the US military.
US embassy official Emma Nagy said yesterday both sides were still cooperating. "We're continuing to work with our partners on our bilateral relationship as we know it to be and as it has existed for decades."
Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said the military was aware of Mr Duterte's comments, but "it hasn't really so much translated into tangible actions that we've seen with regard to our actions under the alliance". Military leaders from both countries have already started preparing for exercises next year.
But in Mr Duterte's latest remarks that underscored the testy ties, he said yesterday his US counterpart Barack Obama could "go to hell", responding to US State Department concerns over his brutal anti-drug drive.
Again expressing displeasure at the joint drills, he said: "War games, war games... Only the US is gaining from them. They let us borrow their weapons, but they take them away when they leave... Their weapons are not compatible with us."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA, REUTERS