Philippines, US agree to scale back joint exercises and troop deployments

Philippine military chief General Ricardo Visaya (left) shakes hands with US Pacific Command commander Admiral Harry Harris, after the Philippine-US Mutual defense Board (MDB) meeting in Manila on Nov 22, 2016.
Philippine military chief General Ricardo Visaya (left) shakes hands with US Pacific Command commander Admiral Harry Harris, after the Philippine-US Mutual defense Board (MDB) meeting in Manila on Nov 22, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (REUTERS) - Philippine and United States military officials agreed to scale back joint exercises and reduce US troop deployments, a Philippine general involved in the talks said on Tuesday (Nov 22), though a statement issued by the allies spoke of "close cooperation".

The joint statement omitted mention of any reduced level of engagement between the two militaries, though President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed his opposition to having foreign troops on Philippines' soil and has threatened to scrap exercises and abrogate pacts.

US officials present at the talks in Manila took no questions, and the joint statement was issued via the hosts.

Reading the statement, spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said there would be continued "close cooperation in areas central to both our national and security interests".

That would include humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, counter-terrorism and maritime security, he said.

But one Philippine general involved in the talks said the two sides also agreed to reduce the size and frequency of joint exercises and the number of US troops taking part.

"The two allies will focus more on humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations and other non-traditional military training and exercises," said the general, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

The number of US troops would be "small", he added. Some 5,000 American soldiers have taken part in exercises in the Philippines in the past two years.

The Philippines has for decades been one of the United States' most important Asian allies, but the relationship has been shaken by Mr Duterte voicing disdain and mistrust of Washington.

Speaking to business leaders in Beijing last month, Mr Duterte spoke of his "separation" from the United States. A few days later, he backtracked on those comments.

In Peru on Saturday (Nov 19), Mr Duterte met Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time and bemoaned what he called hypocrisy and "bullying" by the United States and allies.

The Philippine general said the defense ministry had instructed the military to scale back joint exercises, which should be "refocused on disaster" relief and end-naval and amphibious landing drills.

Planned US deployments under a 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) - which Mr Duterte has also said he would try to stop - would go on as scheduled.

"But, that too, we will see a scaling down on the number of aircraft and troops rotated in our bases," the general added.