Philippines, US to determine fate of joint exercises next month

US military forces prepare for the annual Philippines-US live fire amphibious landing exercise at Crow Valley in Capas, Tarlac province, Philippines on Oct 10, 2016.
US military forces prepare for the annual Philippines-US live fire amphibious landing exercise at Crow Valley in Capas, Tarlac province, Philippines on Oct 10, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (REUTERS) - Philippine and US military officials will meet late next month and decide the fate of decades-old joint exercises, defence sources said on Wednesday (Oct 26), amid doubts over the future of the security alliance and a stream of mixed messages from Manila.

The meeting, an annual get-together to plan events for the year ahead, could bring some clarity to a Philippine position muddied by President Rodrigo Duterte's pronouncements about ending an alliance that he says has little value, contrary to the opinions of some military commanders.

"The meeting was supposedly on October 24, but it was moved to November 24 because they (Philippine military) wanted it after the US elections," said a Philippine army general, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

"As of now, we really don't know what military exercises will be stopped, because the president has not made any specific instruction."

Duterte on Wednesday reiterated his intent to revise or cancel crucial security pacts and scrap war games that military officials maintain are pending a review.

The regular meeting between the head of the US Pacific Command and the chief of staff of the Philippine military alternates each year between Honolulu and Manila and covers activities such as intelligence gathering, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and conventional exercises.

The army general said the Philippine defence minister would try to convince Duterte in a cabinet meeting next week to retain some useful exercises, but the Philippine side sought assurances from its US counterparts that it would not be treated like a vassal state.

"What we wanted is equal partnership with the United States," the source added. "But, if there is no change, I am afraid the Philippines will distance further from the United States."

A defence ministry official told Reuters the meeting was postponed because the president has not put down in writing what exercises with the US. will be scrapped.

"There was nothing to discuss because there was no specific instruction from the president," the official said, adding there are indications the Philippines would scale down the exercises.

The defence department says the two sides now hold 28 exercises each year, three of them large-scale and the rest minor activities.

Washington has been Manila's closest security partner since the end of the Second World War, when the Philippines won independence from the United States. A mutual defence treaty was signed in 1951.

The United States had two of its largest overseas military bases in northern Philippines before its withdrawal in 1992. It returned in 2000 for training and exercises and deployed 1,200 elite troops in the south, when it expanded its war on terror.

The alliance strengthened further in 2014 with the signing of an of Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) allowing US access to five military bases.

Duterte threatened on Tuesday to get rid of EDCA if he were in power long enough.