Philippines says joint military exercise with US to go ahead in 2017, but will review 2018 drills

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte said on Wednesday joint military exercises scheduled next month between the Philippines and the US will be the last for the longtime allies.
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte said on Wednesday joint military exercises scheduled next month between the Philippines and the US will be the last for the longtime allies. PHOTO: EPA

HANOI (Reuters, Bloomberg) - The Philippines will go ahead with joint military exercises in 2017 with treaty ally the United States but the holding of war games from 2018 onwards would be reviewed, the country’s foreign minister said on Thursday (Sept 29), a day after President Rodrigo Duterte vowed that the 2016 war games will be the last.

Speaking in Hanoi as part of Duterte's visiting delegation, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said the 2017 drills were agreed by the previous administration and anything beyond then would be reassessed.  

He said the Philippines did not want a military ally and wished to be friends with all countries, and alienate none, and that would be how it would settle disputes in the South China Sea.

Duterte said at an event with Vietnam-based Filipinos on Wednesday joint military exercises scheduled next month between the Philippines and the US will be the last for the longtime allies. He also said joint naval patrols in the South China Sea, where the Philippines and other nations including Vietnam are locked in territorial disputes with China, will cease.

Duterte, who took office three months ago, has regularly made conflicting comments about his position on the South China Sea. 

He has also called into question the Philippine relationship with the US, his nation’s former colonial overseer and now biggest ally, and indicated he would like the Philippines to be closer with China.  

The exercises between the U.S. and the Philippines run from Oct 4-12 across multiple locations and will feature live-fire drills, an amphibious landing exercise and training on humanitarian assistance, according to a statement from the US Embassy in Manila.  

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday he was not aware of any notification from the Philippines that the drills would be the last.

He added the alliance with the Philippines had long been a source of stability and “is one of the most enduring and important relationships in the Asia Pacific region.”

“The bottom line is that we have significant security commitments with the Philippines,” Kirby said at a briefing in Washington. “We’re committed to meeting those commitments and to furthering this relationship.”

Duterte’s comments have at times caught his own administration off-guard, with senior officials later clarifying his remarks.

Earlier Wednesday evening Duterte addressed the Filipino community in Hanoi and gave a speech where he said he was “serving notice now to the Americans” that his country would respect its military alliance with the US but also seek new partnerships.  

“I will establish new alliances for trade and commerce,” he said in comments distributed by his office. “And you are scheduled to hold war games again, which China does not want. I will serve notice to you now that this will be the last military exercise.” 

Beijing has reclaimed thousands of acres of land in the disputed waters and increased its military presence in recent years. In addition to being a strategic waterway through which more than US$5 trillion in international trade passes each year, the waters are important fishing grounds.

The Philippines had a victory in July when an international tribunal ruled that China’s claims were unlawful. That case was brought by Duterte’s predecessor, who had insisted he would not engage in one-on-one talks with China about the dispute. 

Duterte has said while he respects the tribunal ruling he is open to direct talks with China provided the Philippines benefits economically