MANILA, Philippines >> U.S. and Philippine special forces will begin annual combat exercises on Wednesday in a sign such joint drills are continuing despite vocal opposition by the Philippine president.
Philippine army spokesman Col. Benjamin Hao said the Balance Piston exercises will start in the western province of Palawan. Both sides have agreed to forego live-fire drills in the field during the monthlong exercises, he said Tuesday.
Hao didn’t give a reason for dropping the live-fire maneuvers, traditionally one of the highlights of the exercises, but the Philippine defense department has said President Rodrigo Duterte wants such overt assault drills to be discontinued.
Markmanship events will proceed but will be confined to a camp, Hao said. The drills will also include mock sea interdictions, care for combat casualties and “combat” swimming drills, he said.
About 40 elite Filipino troops will participate in the exercises, Hao said. He declined to say how many Americans will take part.
“This is an annual training event to test the basic warfighting skills of our soldiers and to foster an improved relationship of our armed forces,” Hao told reporters.
Duterte, who has been antagonistic toward the U.S. for its criticism of his deadly anti-drug crackdown, publicly declared that he would halt all joint combat exercises with the Americans, but later walked back on the threat, sparking uncertainty among Philippine and U.S. officials.
Duterte has said that only the American side benefits from the war games, and that China may become upset by the military maneuvers. The U.S. and the Philippines are treaty allies, but Duterte has expressed his desire to expand security ties with China and Russia.
Philippine defense officials said last week that Duterte agreed to allow a smaller number of exercises with the U.S. military to proceed after they explained to him the benefits the Philippines gains from the drills, which include civic actions and disaster-response exercises in one of the most catastrophe-prone countries in the world.