SAN DIEGO—US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday said America’s alliance with the Philippines remains “ironclad” even though the Asian ally’s leader has vowed to end joint military exercises.
The Pentagon chief’s remarks came as he headed for a security summit in Hawaii, where concerns about President Rodrigo Duterte, China’s continued military expansion in the South China Sea, and the return of Islamic State group jihadists to the region were high on the agenda.
“As it has been for decades, our alliance with the Philippines is ironclad,” Carter said, addressing troops aboard the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, docked in San Diego.
Duterte on Wednesday said he would soon end joint military exercises with the United States, a symbolic blow to a military alliance dating back more than 60 years.
“I will serve notice to you now, that this will be the last military exercise, jointly Philippines-US, the last one,” Duterte told several hundred Vietnam-based Filipinos during a rambling address in Hanoi as he started a trip to Vietnam.
Such a move could further dampen relations with Manila’s longtime ally after the firebrand leader—who has also called for US special operations forces in the country’s south to leave—branded US President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” and extended overtures to China.
But senior defense officials later appeared philosophical about Duterte’s outbursts.
The US-Philippine alliance has “had its ups and downs and survived,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
“It’s going to continue to survive based on what we think are strong US-Philippine common security interests.”
As for the military exercises, “we can be flexible about when and if they happen again,” the official added.
Carter was set to meet his Philippine counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, in Hawaii on Friday, where the Pentagon chief is hosting an “informal” meeting for defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Previous summits have tended to focus on China and its growing reach across the South China Sea.
Beijing has in recent years rapidly expanded its physical presence in the strategically vital waterway, turning small maritime features, islets and reefs into much larger islands capable of holding military facilities.
Carter stressed, as he has repeatedly, that the US military will ignore Beijing’s contentious South China Sea claims, and keep operating in waters and airspace surrounding the islands.
“We hope that China chooses to join the rest of the region in strengthening and upholding the shared principles that have helped so many nations around the region, including China, to rise and prosper,” he said.
An international court in July ruled against China’s sweeping South China Sea claims, prompting a furious reaction from Beijing, which promptly vowed to ignore the decision.
Carter’s trip to Hawaii comes with less than four months of the Obama administration remaining.
A key question will be future plans for America’s “rebalance” to Asia, during which Obama has tried to shift the US focus away from Middle East quagmires and toward rapidly growing Asia.
He has mended relations with Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos while bolstering regional blocs and providing a counterbalance to China’s regional ambitions.
Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines recently agreed to conduct joint sea patrols to fight piracy, organized crime, and terrorist activity in the Sulu Sea.
Several nations in the region, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are also concerned about the return of jihadists from the Middle East as the Islamic State (IS) group loses territory in Iraq and Syria.
The defense official said probably about 1,000 or fewer Southeast Asians are in Syria and Iraq, and “hundreds” have already returned to their home countries.
“Local governments certainly are very concerned about the possibility of a rise in ISIL-related violence, it is very high on their agenda when they speak to us,” the official said, using an acronym for the IS group.
Regional allies are sure to ask Carter about the upcoming US election, which has seen a tightening race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Trump has called into question the mutual defense treaties with Japan and South Korea, which have provided the cornerstones of US policy in Asia since World War II.
The defense official indicated he was confident America would retain its Asia focus whatever the election’s result.
“We’ve got a good thing going with the establishment of this principled, inclusive security network,” he said.
“There are a lot of opportunities left over. And we want to make sure that our position in the region is solid for the next president.”
President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday called on the United States to stop the hypocrisy amid statements from two US senators criticizing his war on drugs.
On Wednesday, US Senators Patrick Leahy and Benjamin Cardin criticized Duterte’s approach in combating the drug problem in the Philippines, while expressing concern over recent political developments such as the ouster of Senator Leila De Lima, the Oresident’s most ardent critic, from her post in the Senate committee investigating the killings.
“If President Duterte is serious about improving conditions in the Philippines, he should be focusing on improving services for Filipinos, not casting them aside; holding law enforcement accountable, not giving them a blanket license to kill suspects; and strengthening the judiciary, not undercutting it,” said Leahy.
Cardin concurred, saying: “I have been a strong supporter of Philippines law enforcement institutions, including recently introducing legislation which would increase law enforcement cooperation between our two countries.”
“But these recent reports of thousands of extra-judicial killings as well as detentions and a lack of respect for international human rights commitments are profoundly troubling. They undermine our mutual goals of upholding liberal democratic values in the region and to strengthening international law,” Cardin added.
Duterte went on another tirade about the US going into countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Libya to depose leaders it didn’t like. He had earlier compared himself to leaders from those countries, saying the US didn’t like any of them.
“So, they went to Iraq, the United States of America, their President ordered the armed forces of the United States to enter Iraq on a flimsy excuse that there were weapons of mass destruction, joined by the British government and people,” he said.
“What did they find? Nothing. What happened? They killed Saddam. Now Iraq is a fractured country. They undermined Libya. They killed [Muammar Gaddafi]. Libya is now a destroyed nation. They wanted Assad out, but Assad was being supported by China and Russia so until now they’re slaughtering civilians. Who gets the honor?”
Dutere on Friday confirmed he would stop joint military exercises with the United States during his six-year term.
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.
The annual war games, would be 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.
Duterte, who earlier said China doesn’t want the Philippines to participate in the war games, also accused the United States of being selfish, after the Americans denied his request to procure missiles and other equipment.
“The military—they asked for a joint maneuvers, operations and yet there is no capability between the weapons and the armaments they use and even in the communications.… They don’t allow us to buy the missiles. So what would be the point?”
The government had earlier procured some 12 FA-50 Golden Eagle jet fighters from Korean Aerospace Inc. for P18.9 billion. Two of the brand new, supersonic FA-50 lead-in fighters were delivered last year.
Duterte questioned the wisdom of buying the jets if they were not properly armed.