Philippines scaling back, not scrapping, military work with US: Minister

MANILA (REUTERS) - President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to retain the Philippines' security alliance with former colonial power the United States, according to the country's defence minister, but joint military activities will be scaled back, and less combat-focused.

Duterte has threatened repeatedly to cut defence pacts and end joint drills involving thousands of soldiers, after lashing out at criticism by the Obama administration for his war on drugs, a centrepiece policy that has killed more than 2,300 people in four months.

But Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the security alliance with the United States would not be scrapped, including a 2014 agreement that allows prolonged deployment of American forces in the country.

"It will remain," Lorenzana told reporters, referring to the strategic alliance with Washington. "No, it will not be abrogated. But we will reduce the number of activities."

However, the navy exercises CARAT, or cooperation afloat readiness and training, and Phiblex, a marine amphibious landing exercise, would be ditched, he said. Both are held annually.

Lorenzana said the war games called Balikatan (Shoulder-to-shoulder) involving thousands of American and Filipino soldiers and marines would continue, but would be re-focused to humanitarian, engineering and civic action activities.

"We will also retain small unit exercises, like special operations, counter terrorism and anti-narcotics," he said, adding the military would inform its US counterparts about the president's decision at a meeting this month.

Duterte's declarations that exercises this year between the two militaries were "the last" because he hated having foreign troops in the country have resonated internationally, and baffled much of the region, as have his overtures to historic rival China.

Despite the threats, only one exercise - joint patrols inside the Philippines' 12-mile territorial waters - has been officially cancelled.

On Monday Duterte said he had cancelled an order for 26,000 assault rifles for the police, after a US senator said he would halt the deal over human rights concerns.

The Philippines will cut to six or seven the number of military drills with the US set for next year, from an initial figure of more than a dozen, said a defence ministry spokesman, Arsenio Andolong.

"The president hit the reset button and there are new operating parameters when it comes to these agreements," he said.

The United States promised to repel external aggression in the Philippines with a mutual defence treaty signed in 1951, a relic of the Cold War. The allies enjoyed special ties until Manila closed US military bases in 1992 upon expiry of an agreement.

After a Visiting Forces Agreement struck in 1998, however, the US military returned in 2000 for training and exercises in the Philippines.

The relationship was tightened further in 2014, when an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement gave US forces access to military bases and some troop rotation. Duterte has hinted he would abrogate that treaty.

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