SAN DIEGO, United States: US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday (Friday in Manila) said Washington’s alliance with the Philippines remains “ironclad” even though President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to end joint military exercises to appease China.
The Pentagon chief’s remarks came as he headed for a security summit in Hawaii, where concerns about Duterte, China’s continued military expansion in the West Philippine Sea (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.
Returning to his home city of Davao early on Friday, Duterte repeated the statements despite efforts by key aides to downplay them.
This month’s Phiblex amphibious landing exercises between Philippine and US marines will be the last, he said, at least under his term.
“In my term, yes. I don’t know if that treaty would take some form but in my term, yes,” Duterte said. “I would not be using … my entitlement as commander in chief. I would simply say that that is the foreign policy,” he added.
The President claimed the exercises did not result in technology transfer from the US military.
“And you can ask the military … They asked for joint maneuvers, operations and yet there is no capability between the weapons and the armaments they use and even in the communications,” Duterte said.
“It’s all soiled clothes. They (US military) do not share,” the President said.
Duterte then recalled the previous Aquino administration’s purchase of three FA-50 lead-in fighter jets, saying they were of no use because the US would not allow the Philippines to buy the aircraft’s missiles.
The statements were hailed by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which had agreed to restart peace talks with the Duterte-led government.
“Indeed, amidst efforts of the Duterte regime to promote an independent foreign policy, such war maneuver exercises by US troops are completely anachronistic and should be put to a permanent end,” the CPP said.
It claimed the war games had “long violated Philippine sovereignty” and served as an “insult” on national dignity.
‘US military flexible’ – source
Ending war games could further dampen relations between Manila and Washington after the firebrand Duterte, who has also called for US special operations forces in the country’s south to leave, used expletives against US President Barack Obama 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 when and if they happen again,” the official added.
Carter is set to meet his Philippine counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, in Hawaii, where the Pentagon chief is hosting an “informal” meeting for defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
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.
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.
“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.”