MANILA, Philippines >> The Philippine defense chief said he told the U.S. military that plans for joint patrols and naval exercises in the disputed South China Sea have been put on hold, the first concrete break in defense cooperation after months of increasingly strident comments by the country’s new president.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also said that 107 U.S. troops involved in operating surveillance drones against Muslim militants would be asked to leave the southern part of the country once the Philippines acquires those intelligence-gathering capabilities in the near future.
President Rodrigo Duterte also wants to halt the 28 military exercises that are carried out with U.S. forces each year, Lorenzana said. Duterte has said he wants an ongoing U.S.-Philippine amphibious beach landing exercise to be the last in his six-year presidency as he backs away from what he views as too much dependence on the U.S.
“This year would be the last,” Duterte said of military exercises involving the Americans in a speech Friday in southern Davao city where he lashed out at the U.S. anew and repeated his readiness to be ousted from office for his hard-line stance.
“For as long as I am there, do not treat us like a doormat because you’ll be sorry for it,” Duterte said. “I will not speak with you. I can always go to China.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. government is not aware of any official notification on curtailing military exercises. He said the U.S. remains focused on its security commitments to Philippines, with which it has a mutual defense treaty.
“We think comments like this, whether they are or will be backed up by actual action or not, are really at odds with the closeness of the relationships that we have with the people of the Philippines and which we fully intend to continue,” Kirby told reporters.
Duterte, who took office in June and describes himself as a leftist politician, has had an uneasy relationship with the U.S., his country’s former colonial master.
Duterte has lashed out against U.S. government criticism of his deadly crackdown against illegal drugs, which has left more than 3,600 suspects dead in just three months, alarming Western governments and human rights groups.
But while some Filipino officials have walked back on Duterte’s sometimes crude anti-U.S. pronouncements — early this week he told President Barack Obama “to go to hell” — Lorenzana’s comments show for the first time that the Duterte administration will act by rolling back cooperation with the U.S. military.
With the turquoise backdrop of the South China Sea, U.S. Marines and allied Filipino combat forces barged ashore Friday on amphibious vessels in a mock assault on a Philippine beach in San Antonio town in northwestern Zambales province.
Pounding rain prevented military aircraft from joining the beach assault drills, but the U.S. and Filipino forces managed to rapidly come on shore to take out a “notional target,” said Maj. Roger Hollenbeck, a U.S. military spokesman for the drills.
Asked to comment on the possibility that the joint maneuvers will be the last under Duterte, Hollenbeck replied, “If it’s the last, so be it.”
“I have nothing to do with that and we are going to continue to work together, we’ve got a great relationship,” he said.
Lorenzana said some U.S. military officials have expressed concern about where the countries’ 65-year-old treaty alliance is headed under Duterte.
Duterte’s moves to limit the presence of visiting American troops will impede Washington’s plans to expand the footprint of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia to counter China.
“President Duterte’s shoot-from-the-hip style of parochial democracy is deeply troubling,” said Carl Thayer, an expert on the South China Sea. “If Duterte moves to curtail U.S. rotational military presence from bases in the Philippines, this would undermine the U.S. ability to deter China not only in defense of Philippines sovereignty but regional security as well.”
Despite the difficult stage in the countries’ relations, Lorenzana remained optimistic that those ties would eventually bounce back.
“I think it’s just going through these bumps on the road,” Lorenzana told a news conference. “Relationships sometimes go to this stage … but over time it will be patched up.”
Duterte’s falling out with Washington will not necessarily spread to U.S. allies such as Japan, for example, which has committed to deliver patrol ships for the Philippine coast guard and has signed a deal to lease five small surveillance planes the country can use to bolster its territorial defense. The planes may arrive as early as next month, Lorenzana said.
The U.S. and Japan have helped the Philippines develop its capabilities to safeguard and defend its territorial waters amid China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea. Under Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, the U.S. and Philippine militaries twice staged naval exercises near the disputed waters.
While taking a critical stance on U.S. security policies, Duterte has reached out to China and Russia. Lorenzana said he has been ordered by Duterte to travel to Beijing and Moscow to discuss what defense equipment the Philippines can acquire from them.