US, Philippines launch war games amid uncertainty over ties

The United States and the Philippines launched annual joint military exercises on Tuesday, nearly a week after President Rodrigo Duterte said they would be the last between the treaty allies.

The nearly weeklong combat exercises designed to increase capability and boost camaraderie between forces involve 1,100 American and 400 Filipino troops.

They come as the newly-elected Duterte has gone on a number of verbal tirades against the United States since taking over the presidency for a six-year term in June.

He has called US President Barack Obama a "son of a whore" and lambasted the United States for criticizing his signature war on crime, which has sparked human rights concerns over as many as 3,000 extrajudicial killings.

"The Americans, I don't like them… they are reprimanding me in public. So I say: 'Screw you, fuck you'," he said in his latest outburst on Sunday.

Duterte, a tough-on-crime former mayor of Davao City, has pledged to implement the successful yet brutal tactics used in that southern island city to wipe the Philippines clean of drugs and drug dealers.

Over the weekend, the firebrand president controversially said he would be "happy to slaughter" three million drug users in the country.

No impact on military ties, yet

Duterte's invective against the United States is yet to impact military relations between the two treaty allies, US and Philippines officials say. It's unclear if Duterte will really translate his threats into policy, or if he would even be able to implement them in the face of resistance from the military.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter described US-Philippines military relations over the weekend as "ironclad," though he did voice concern over Duterte's language.

Duterte campaigned on making his Southeast Asia island nation's foreign policy less dependent on the United States at a time Washington is relying on its longtime ally and former colony to play a regional role in the contested South China Sea. However, Duterte has said he would not abrogate a 1951 mutual defense treaty between the two countries.

Benigno Aquino, Duterte's predecessor, signed enhanced defense pacts between the two countries to bring them closer. He also opened a case at a UN tribunal that ruled this summer that China's claims over the entire South China Sea were illegal.

China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, including several inlets and shoals claimed by the Philippines. 

Duterte has said he wants to develop closer ties with China and has avoided bringing up the UN tribunal ruling with Beijing, where he plans to visit soon to meet with President Xi Jinping. The Chinese are wary of US military moves in the region.

In addition to the larger geopolitical issuese, close military operation with the United States could impact two peace processes, one with communist rebels and another with Muslim rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, both of which oppose the US military presence in the country. In a Tuesday speech, Duterte appeared to suggest he wanted the US military out of only Mindanao island in the south, where both rebel groups are active.

The United States has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the Philippines over the years, the third-largest recipient in Asia after Afghanistan and Pakistan.


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