Issue date: April 17, 2017

US joint exercises to resume as Duterte offers military assistance to the Middle East

THE Philippine military said Sunday it would hold annual exercises with US troops next month, reaffirming its commitment to the alliance despite cooling relations under President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

Mr. Duterte, for his part, in his speech to businessmen in Bahrain on Friday, said he is willing to deploy “one battalion, one regiment, one division” of Filipino soldiers in the Middle East to “protect” the region from threats like terrorism.

“You we are a people of gratitude. And if we can repay you, we do not have the resources, we do not have the oil but we can offer our lives to you,” Mr. Duterte said. “I give you my word. We will do it. We will find a good excuse.”

“My soldiers are very disciplined, most of them (are) from the Philippine Military Academy and if you need troops here, just in the borders...let’s just put it in writing that they are here for training,” he added.

The firebrand leader then took another swipe at the US saying, “America sometimes does not know what the right hand is doing of the left hand.”

For his part, National Security Adviser Hermogenes C. Esperon Jr., told reporters in a press briefing in Qatar on Sunday that the deployment of Filipino soldiers in Gulf states would be “on a basis of training.”

“It’s a normal military-to-military cooperation,” Mr. Esperon said. “Defending means a lot. It could mean echelons, it could be exchange of information [or] it could be direct coordination.”

In Manila, Major Celeste Frank Sayson, spokesman of the Balikatan joint exercises with the US, said the Balikatan “will be scenario-based like (preparing for) a big storm hitting the Philippines or the possibility of terrorism.”

“We are safe to say there will be no more live-fire exercises. We (will) focus on humanitarian and civil assistance,” he added.

The 10-day exercises in May will be the first held under Mr. Duterte, who has suggested canceling the drills and called for the withdrawal of American troops, putting into question Manila’s 70-year-old alliance with Washington as he looks instead to court China.

The outspoken Filipino leader, who has earned international censure for a war on drugs that has seen thousands killed, has since softened his stance on working with the US military.

In previous years Balikatan had evolved from counter-terrorism maneuvers against Islamic militants to simulations of protecting or retaking territory, as a dispute with Beijing over islands in the South China Sea escalated.

But Mr. Duterte, who took office last year, has sought improved relations with China and has set aside the maritime row in favour of economic concessions.

Defence Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana had said the exercises would refocus on fighting terrorism, which he described as the Philippines’ top security problem.

The Philippines is battling Islamic militants and pirates in the conflict-torn south, where several groups have pledged allegiance to Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Security forces in the past week clashed with the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group on a popular resort island, the first attack on a key Philippine tourist destination in recent years. -- AFP, with Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral

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