Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said joint military exercises of Filipino and American troops next week will be the last such drills, although his foreign secretary quickly said the decision was not final.
Duterte made the comments while addressing Filipino community members in Hanoi late Wednesday night, noting that the Philippines will maintain its military alliance with the US because they share a 65-year-old mutual defence treaty.
During a two-day visit to Vietnam, Duterte said he wants to establish new trade and commercial alliances with China and Russia, and that Beijing doesn’t want the war games.
“I would serve notice to you now that this will be the last military exercise,” he said. “Jointly, Philippines-US, the last one.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday they have not received any official communication from the Philippine government on the matter.
Some 1,400 US troops based in Okinawa, Japan and 500 Filipino counterparts plan to participate in the Philippines Amphibious Landing Exercise on October 4-12 in multiple locations including Palawan, the westernmost province nearest to disputed islands in the South China Sea, officials said.
The two militaries have routinely held bilateral exercises aimed at improving cooperation. Cancellation would end the annual 10-day Balikatan, or shoulder to shoulder, exercise which this year drew more than 8,000 troops, among others.
Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay Jr., however, contradicted Duterte, saying joint military drills approved by the previous administration will continue until 2018, when they can evaluate whether there’s a need for them to go on.
“He was just simply saying for now, taking into account the political reality, he does not want the joint military exercises to continue,” Yasay said.
Duterte has had an uneasy relationship with the US, his country’s long-standing ally and former colonial power, since he won a presidential election in May.
More than 3,000 suspected drug pushers and users have been killed since July 1 under Duterte’s war on drugs. Human rights advocates and Philippine allies including the United States have deplored the killings.