Philip­pines tells US no joint pa­trols in South China Sea 107 US troops may be asked to leave South

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The Philip­pine de­fense chief said Fri­day he told the US 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 US 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 in­tel­li­gence­gath­er­ing 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 US.

“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 US anew and re­peated his readi­ness to be ousted from of­fice for his hard­line 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 US govern­ment is not aware of any of­fi­cial no­ti­fi­ca­tion on cur­tail­ing mil­i­tary ex­er­cises. He said the US 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 US, his coun­try’s for­mer colonial mas­ter.

Duterte has lashed out against 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.

But while some Filipino of­fi­cials have walked back on Duterte’s some­times crude anti-US 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 US mil­i­tary.

With the turquoise back­drop of the South China Sea, US 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 US and Filipino forces man­aged to rapidly come on shore to take out a “no­tional tar­get,” said Maj. Roger Hol­len­beck, a US 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 US 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 US 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 US ro­ta­tional mil­i­tary pres­ence from bases in the Philip­pines, this would un­der­mine the US 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 US 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 US 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 US and Philip­pine mil­i­taries twice staged naval ex­er­cises near the dis­puted waters. — AP

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