The US and Philippine militaries have begun their largest Balikatan military exercises since President Duterte came to power.
The joint exercises opened today (Monday, May 7) with a ceremony at a military camp in Manila and featured about 8,000 American and Filipino personnel, alongside small contingents from Japan and Australia.
American and Philippine officials praised the long treaty alliance between the US and its former Southeast Asian colony and then linked arms in a show of solidarity.
The exercises are “just one of many embodiments of our robust relationship”, US Ambassador Sung Kim said. The drills “will continue to reinforce the deep and lasting commitment between our two countries for a peaceful and secure region”.
Since winning the presidency in 2016, Duterte has vowed to scale back the presence of US troops involved in counterterrorism training in the country’s south and once threatened to end the annual drills with American forces.
The president has also been critical of US security policies, and taken steps to renew ties with China that had been strained due to territorial conflicts in the South China Sea.
Duterte’s animosity with Washington was partly ignited by President Obama’s condemnation of his campaign against drugs, though such criticism has lessened under President Trump.
As we reported last year, a leaked transcript of a call between the two leaders showed Trump praising Duterte’s anti-drug efforts.
Although this year’s exercises are the largest under Duterte, Philippine officials stressed they’re not aimed at China, but rather address the threat of urban terrorism and other crisis scenarios.
The exercises will feature amphibious beach landings, live-fire manoeuvres and combat drills in mock urban settings to train special forces in battling terrorists such situations as seen in Marawi city last year.
“We want both our forces to learn from our great and hard-earned experience in our past battles like Marawi,” said Marine Lieutenant General Emmanuel Salamat, who leads the Philippine contingent. “We just want to help each other to be able to effectively combat future scenarios.”
Hundreds of Filipino militants and foreign jihadists seized the central area of Marawi on May 23 last year, occupying buildings and homes and forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to flee.
Despite initial difficulty because of their unfamiliarity with urban warfare, Filipino troops quelled the insurrection with airstrikes, artillery fire and ground assaults with the help of US and Australian surveillance aircraft after five months.
The six-month conflict left more than 1,100 mostly militant gunmen dead.