Sunday, September 25, 2016

Philippine-US forces to hold first drills under Duterte

Philippine-US forces to hold first drills under Duterte

Drills to be held next month despite Philippine leader’s earlier call for US special forces’ withdrawal from south Mindanao
Philippine-US forces to hold first drills under Duterte
By Hader Glang
ZAMBOANGA CITY, the Philippines
The Philippines’ military is set to hold its first exercise with United States forces under President Rodrigo Duterte, despite his earlier call for American special forces to withdraw from the troubled southern island of Mindanao.
GMA News reported Sunday that the war games will be conducted Oct. 4-12 in various parts of northern Luzon island as well a Palawan -- located near the Spratly island chain in the disputed South China Sea.
It cited a statement on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Manila which said that the 33rd iteration of the Philippines Amphibious Landing Exercise, called PHIBLEX 33, would include around 1,400 U.S. service members based in Okinawa in Japan and 500 Philippine troops.
“The opportunity to train and build mutually beneficial capabilities with our Armed Forces of the Philippines partners is essential for sharpening our bilateral amphibious and humanitarian assistance capabilities, both hallmarks of the U.S. Marine Corps,” said Brig. Gen. John M. Jansen, 3d Marine Expeditionary Brigade commanding general.
“Exchanging expertise and cultivating our longstanding security alliance provides a cornerstone for security and stability in the region, and has for decades,” he added.
The war games will feature humanitarian civic assistance efforts, an amphibious landing drill and live-fire training aimed at advancing cooperation between the long-time allies, improving interoperability and assisting in strengthening bilateral amphibious capabilities.
Earlier this month, Duterte declared his administration would pursue an “independent foreign policy” and warned that the U.S. military presence would worsen conditions in Mindanao -- where several armed Muslim groups, including those involved in an ongoing peace process with the government, and a communist insurgency operate.
The U.S. -- the Philippines’ former colonizer -- deployed special forces personnel to Mindanao in 2002 to train and advise local units fighting Abu Sayyaf miltants, but the program -- which once involved 1,200 Americans -- was discontinued in 2015, although a small presence has remained.
The declarations were followed by another announcement that Duterte no longer wants the Philippines to participate in joint sea patrols with other countries -- seemingly again turning his nose up at the U.S. and his predecessor’s agreement with Washington to start joint patrols in the South China Sea.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella later clarified that Duterte’s call for American troops’ withdrawal was “not policy yet”.
"Definitely, the President has already painted a picture, let's see how it unfolds," he said. "We are not turning our back on anybody. We are just charting our own independent course... Less dependent on [Americans], perhaps."
Last week, Duterte -- who is scheduled to visit China next month -- underlined that he seeks peace rather than war with Beijing over the sea dispute.
Beijing claims around 90 percent of the South China Sea despite other Asian counties considering some of its waters, islands and reefs as their territory.
In July, an arbitration court in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in its petition against China's "nine-dash line" claim on a large part of the sea -- which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.
China has accused the Philippines of having "deliberately mischaracterized" disputes in the sea -- and which sees more than $5 trillion in maritime trade every year -- declaring the court's award "null and void".
The United States and its allies -- including the Philippines and Japan -- have, however, expressed alarm over China's reclamation work in the region, which includes the building of airfields, as they suspect the maritime expansion is aimed at extending its military reach.
The U.S. has been conducting "freedom of navigation" operations near disputed islands and reefs -- moves Beijing has called "provocative".