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Philippines: No more joint patrols, military can cope without US

  • Published at 11:07 am October 7th, 2016
  • Last updated at 11:23 am October 7th, 2016
Philippines: No more joint patrols, military can cope without US

The Philippines announced Friday it had officially informed the United States that joint patrols in the South China Sea patrols had been suspended, following orders from President Rodrigo Duterte.

"They have been suspended for the time being. Washington know it already," Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters, adding he had relayed the decision to the commander of the US Pacific Command when he was in Hawaii at the start of this month.

Still, Lorenzana indicated he was still not 100 percent sure of Duterte's final plans. "They will not be conducted anymore until we clarify if he (Duterte) means what he says," Lorenzana said.

The longtime allies began planning joint patrols under the previous Philippine government, which had sought to attract a greater US military presence in the region to counter Chinese efforts to take control of the South China Sea.

[youtube id="beXnoO8xYsU"]

China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters close to the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations, and has in recent years built artificial islands in the disputed areas that are capable of hosting military bases.

Lorenzana said the United States and Philippines had conducted two "passing through" manoeuvres over the section of the sea claimed by Manila this year, but not actual "combat patrols".

Duterte, who began his six-year term on June 30, quickly shredded Aquino's strategy on China, seeking co-operation and dialogue with Beijing while diluting the Philippines' alliance with the United States.

He also repeatedly railed against the Philippines' former colonial ruler for criticising his war on crime, which has claimed more than 3,300 lives and raised concerns about extra-judicial killings.

"I have lost my respect for America," Duterte said on Tuesday, as he threatened to break ties completely with the United States. Duterte had previously branded US President Barack Obama a "son of a whore".

He had also said he wanted US Special Forces out of the southern region of Mindanao, where they have been helping to quell Islamic militants, and threatened to scrap a 2014 agreement granting American troops increased access to Philippine bases.

Duterte also said he would cancel all 28 military exercises the two sides hold annually.

[caption id="attachment_20623" align="aligncenter" width="800"]U.S. soldiers of 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team disembark from a U.S. military helicopter CH-47 as they take part in the annual "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) war games with Filipino soldiers at a military camp, Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija in northern Philippines April 20, 2015. REUTERS/Erik De Castro US soldiers of 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team disembark from a US military helicopter CH-47 as they take part in the annual "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) war games with Filipino soldiers at a military camp in northern Philippines April 20, 2015 REUTERS[/caption]

Concrete actions

However, until Friday, officials from both sides had said Duterte's pronouncements were not necessarily policy. US officials had repeatedly said they had not been officially informed of Duterte's comments. So the announcement that the joint patrols had been suspended was the first public confirmation that one of Duterte's anti-US comments had become policy.

Lorenzana said none of the other Duterte pronouncements had been officially delivered to the Americans. But he did say the Philippines was planning to eject the US forces in the southern Philippines in the "near future", as he disclosed details of their normally secretive activities.

The US Special Forces began short-term deployments in 2002 to train Filipino troops in how to counter Islamic militants, with the American personnel peaking at about 600 before the operation was scaled down in 2014.

"There are actually very few of them (now), just about 157 people," Lorenzana said, adding they were stationed inside a large military camp on the outskirts of Zamboanga city on the main southern island of Mindanao.

"All they do is operate their drones and some intelligence equipment to help our troops in the south."

He said the drones flew over the militant strongholds of the Basilan and Sulu island groups, as well as central Mindanao where another small armed group had pledged alliance to the Islamic State group.

Lorenzana said those US forces would be asked to leave when the Philippines acquired its own drones. "The president said that he doesn't want them to leave immediately but maybe in the near future," Lorenzana said.

[caption id="attachment_20626" align="aligncenter" width="800"]duterte and obama filipino president Rodrigo Duterte and his US counterpart Barak Obama COLLECTED[/caption]

Military can cope without US aid

US-Philippines ties are going through bumps on the road and the Philippine military could manage if treaty ally the United States were to withdraw aid, the defence minister said on Friday.

The Philippines intended to buy arms from China and Russia and there had been no adverse reaction from within the military to President Rodrigo Duterte's vows to scale back defence ties with the United States, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

Lorenzana's remarks suggested he was following other top officials in Duterte's administration in rallying behind the maverick president's tough anti-US agenda after weeks of scrambling to manage the fallout from his outbursts and threats to downgrade the alliance.

Lorenzana had on Wednesday set a conciliatory tone, saying Duterte may have been misinformed when he said US-Philippine military exercises were no benefit to his country.

But on Friday Lorenzana said the value of US military aid to the Philippines was not that much, and the military could ask Congress to make up for a shortfall of some $50m-$100m a year in US military aid.

"We can live without that," Lorenzana told a foreign correspondents' forum.

[caption id="attachment_20624" align="aligncenter" width="800"]U.S. and Filipino soldiers take part in the annual "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) war games with Filipino soldiers at a military camp, Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija in northern Philippines April 20, 2015. REUTERS/Erik De Castro US and Filipino soldiers take part in the annual "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) war games with Filipino soldiers at a military camp in northern Philippines, April 20, 2015 REUTERS[/caption]

Not too dependent

Lorenzana said he believed Duterte's objective was to diversify Philippines' foreign ties and cut dependency on former colonial ruler the United States. "The president is trying to develop a relationship with the US that is not too dependent on one country," he said.

Duterte has caused a diplomatic storm by declaring that joint US-Philippines military exercises would cease, a defence agreement would be reviewed and, at an undisclosed time, he might "break up" with the United States.

"Maybe we should re-assess the relationship," he said. "Are we benefiting, are we getting what we should be getting from alliance? It is part of this growing up."

He said Duterte was sensitive to concerns about his drugs war and it was likely the president would dial down his rhetoric if questions from the West about human rights stopped.

Asked how changes in the security relationship could impact a strategic US "rebalance" to Asia, he said, "They are not lacking of any place to park their ships if they are no longer allowed to park their ships here."

He said there may be some issues of compatibility with defence procurements from Russia and China, which were willing to sell to the Philippines.

Lorenzana's show of accord with Duterte's anti-US stand follows a similar tough line from Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay who said this week Duterte wanted to liberate the country from a "shackling dependency" on the United States.

Yasay said the president was compelled to realign Philippine foreign policy and not submit to US demands and interests.

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