PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday declared an end to joint military exercises between the Philippines and the United States, saying the scheduled war games in October would be the last.
Members of his Cabinet scrambled to soften the impact of his statements in a speech before the Filipino community in Hanoi, Vietnam, Wednesday night, but the President’s message to the United States was clear.
“You are scheduled to hold war games again, which China does not want. I would serve notice to you now that this will be the last military exercise. Jointly, the Philippines, US, the last one,” Duterte said.
The annual Philippines Amphibious Landing Exercise will be held from Oct. 4 to 12 in multiple locations in Luzon, including Palawan, closest to the disputed waters subject to an ongoing sea row between Manila and Beijing.
This will be the first large-scale combat exercises war games between the two treaty allies under the Duterte administration, who repeatedly called out the United States for meddling in his war on illegal drugs.
The military exercise involves more than 1,400 US military personnel and 500 Philippine Marines in amphibious landing and live-fire exercises affirming the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement, which the Supreme Court upheld last January.
The President said that while the Philippines would still honor the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty that it signed with the United States, he would still run to China to push for trade investments in the country.
“So I’m serving notice now to the Americans and to those who are allies: I will maintain the military alliance because there is an RP-US Pact which our countries signed in the early ‘50s. But I will establish new alliances for trade and commerce [with China],” the President said.
Duterte reiterated his stance to stop sea patrols with the United States, which he sees would only complicate the already testy relationship between Manila and Beijing.
“I will not join any patrol in the [South China Sea],” he said, noting the distinction between gray Navy ships and white Coast Guard vessels. “There will never be an occasion that I will send gray ships there, not because I’m afraid. [But] I have this ruling by the International Court of Justice that says that in the South China Sea, the entitlements there are ours.”
Duterte added he is only allowing the upcoming exercise to continue to allow Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to fulfill commitments.
“I just don’t want my Defense Secretary to get embarrased,” Duterte said.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., who was with Duterte on his trip to Vietnam, said he did not hear the part of the President’s speech in which he terminated military exercises, and said the only thing he ruled out were joint patrols beyond the country’s 12-nautical-mile territorial waters.
On Thursday, Yasay said he had not heard the portion of Duterte’s speech because he was “sleepy from jet lag.”
Yasay said a mutual defense board evaluates the need for military exercises annually, adding that all of the Philippines’ treaties with the US, including the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, will outlast Duterte’s six-year term, and the President cannot abrogate these agreements.
Yasay also said that the Balikatan exercises, resulting from the Visiting Forces Agreement that the country signed with the United States, would continue in places “other than the South China Sea.”
Former Armed Forces of the Philippines chief and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon meanwhile, said that the President’s pronouncements were steps towards “demilitarization” in the disputed waters. He added that what Duterte meant was to cut off military exercises only for this year, not for his entire term.
“We’re going into some kind of demilitarization in the area. So that’s okay. They are just exercises after all,” Esperon said.
“Don’t you want that, so it becomes quiet, peaceful?” Esperon said. “If the navy of China is not there—those are our traditional fishing grounds—then things will be okay.”
Esperon did not say how this would lead to a demilitarization on the Chinese side, however.
Asked if ending the joint military exercises with the US was a condition set by China for bilateral talks, Esperon said: “I don’t think so.”
The Defense department said it would seek further clarification and guidance from the President regarding the future of US-Philippine joint military exercises.
“Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana will discuss this with the President to seek more clarification and guidance,” Andoling said in a statement Thursday.
At a regular press briefing in Manila, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella admitted that there were already “changes” to be effected with the country’s largest trading and economic partner.
“There are also certain modifications in the relationship [between the United States and the Philippines] and so the relationship remains solid according to the agreements, but also there will be other activities that will be more open to other nations too,” he said Thursday.
In the same speech, the President said that Philippines is not ready to fight China, even with the help of its long-term strategic ally whom he said would not come to the assistance of the country in a military conflict started by China in the disputed waters.
“Either we go to war, or we talk. We can’t take on China. Even with the help of America. So, we talk,” he said.
The President emphasized, however, that the country would proceed on the basis of the arbitration tribunal’s decision that China’s nine-dash line claims to most of the South China Sea were invalid.
“When the time comes, I will tell China, this is ours. I will talk to you, but I will not go out of the four corners of this paper,” he said. “But this is not the time to die. I am not ready to commit the soldiers of this country just to be massacred.”
In Washington, the US State Department said that they are hoping to move the relationship between the two strategic allies forward, even as Duterte’s statements have already caused some consternation.
“Well, again, our focus is on the relationship today and moving it forward. And we continue to believe that that’s possible. Again, we’ve seen these comments, we’ve talked about them when they’re – when they have been made, but the bottom line is that we have significant security commitments with the Philippines,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby said at a press briefing in Washington.
“We’re committed to meeting those commitments and to furthering this relationship,” he added.
Kirby added that the US government has yet to be formally notified about Duterte’s wishes to stop military exercises.
“We continue to focus on our relationship with the Philippines and we’re going to continue to work together in many areas of mutual interest, including counterterrorism, to help improve the livelihoods of the Philippine people and to uphold our shared democratic values,” he said.
On Tuesday, Washington said that they will not interfere with the President’s decision to pursue alliances or partnerships with China and Russia, but said it would regard the Philippines as a strategic ally until they hear otherwise.
This after Duterte made public pronouncements that he was about to cross a “point of no return” in the Philippines’ relationship with the United States, asking America’s rivals, Russia and China to help the country.
During his speech in Hanoi, Duterte reiterated his plan to establish new alliances with China when it comes to trade and commerce; and Russia, following the Philippines’ plan to buy military equipment and technology from them.
Duterte also said that he will soon visit China and Russia to talk about the planned alliance.
A former senior diplomat and a maritime expert expressed great concern about Duterte’s plan, saying it would not only send the wrong signal to the United States, but risked abdicating the country’s maritime frontier to external threats.
Former permanent representative to the United Nations for the Philippines Lauro Baja Jr. said Duterte’s plan raises serious questions about his quest for a “more independent foreign policy.”
“This latest announcement sends wrong signals to the US as a treaty ally and to China with whom we have strained relations over the West Philippine Sea. It raises serious questions on the quest for a ‘more independent foreign policy’ coming as it does on the rationale that ‘China does not want’ such joint military exercises,” Baja said.
University of the Philippines Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea director and professor Jay Batongbacal said stopping the joint exercises and joint patrols to monitor the country’s exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea meant Manila should be prepared to defend itself against external threats to its territory.
“Ending the annual Ph-US military exercises will diminish US regional presence and limit US ability to respond any changes in the regional security situation, including alteration of status quo in the West Philippine Sea,” Batongbacal said.
“If Philippines does so, it should be ready to take on the task of directly and regularly securing the West Philippine Sea. Stopping exercises in addition to stopping patrols of EEZ, if they push through, risk abdication of the maritime frontier to external threats,” Batongbacal warned.
“The Philippines should be ready for that. If threat becomes real, Philippines should be prepared to defend [itself] on its own,” he added.
He also said the US could find a more reliable security partner to secure its own maritime interests.
A Foreign Affairs Department spokesman declined to comment on the President’s remarks in Hanoi, citing an order from the Palace.
“We have no statement. Pursuant to a Malacanang directive that media queries on the President’s statement be referred to the presidential spokesman, please direct your query to Secretary Abella,” Jose said.
Leftist groups such as the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) welcomed Duterte’s declaration.
“We welcome the most recent pronouncements of President Rodrigo Duterte stating that the upcoming US-RP war games [Phiblex] will be the last under his term. The move is timely and consistent with his avowed independent foreign policy. It’s about time,” said Renato Reyes, Jr., Bayan secretary general.
The Pilipinong Nagkakaisa Para sa Soberanya (P1nas) on Thursday expressed full support for Duterte’s announcement.
“This is an unprecedented assertion of sovereignty that shows President Duterte’s seriousness in pursuing an independent foreign policy as enshrined in the Constitution,” the group said. With Sandy Araneta and PNA
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