The Philippine defense chief said Friday that the US military has been told that plans for joint patrols and naval exercises in the disputed South China Sea have been put on hold as the country’s new president desires.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also said that 107 US troops involved in operating surveillance drones against Muslim militants would be asked to leave the southern part of the country when the Philippines acquires those intelligence-gathering capabilities in the near future.
Additionally, President Rodrigo Duterte wants to halt the 28 Philippine military exercises carried out with US forces each year, Lorenzana said. Duterte has said he wants an ongoing US-Philippine combat exercise to be the last in his six-year presidency as he backs away from what he views as too much dependence on the US.
Duterte, who took office in June, has had an uneasy relationship with the US, his country’s longtime treaty ally. In speeches in recent weeks, Duterte has expressed his desire to scale back the presence of visiting U.S. troops in the country, along with 28 annual Philippine military exercises with American forces.
But while some Filipino officials have walked back on Duterte’s anti-US pronouncements — early this week he told President Barack Obama “to go to hell” — Lorenzana’s statements show that for the first time the Duterte administration has taken concrete steps to roll back cooperation with the US military in the Philippines.
Despite the difficult stage in the country’s relations with its former colonizer, 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 describes himself as a leftist politician and has taken umbrage from US 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.