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Philippines may relocate naval drills with U.S. - defence minister

President Rodrigo Duterte returns the salute of a military officer as he leads the death anniversary celebration of Filipino national hero Dr Jose Rizal in Manila, Philippines December 30, 2016. REUTERS/Czar Dancel

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has asked his defence minister to move joint naval exercises with the United States away from the disputed South China Sea as Duterte tries to repair Manila’s ties with China.

The Philippines has already decided to reduce the number of drills it holds with its long-term ally and former colonial master after Duterte announced a sudden pivot towards China.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters at a military ceremony on Friday that Duterte had advised him to seek a new location for the war games.

“We might move the naval exercises facing the South China Sea to Mindanao area to avoid annoying our neighbour, so let us be sensitive of our neighbours,” he said.

Duterte visited Beijing in October and announced that he was loosening ties with Washington, which has provided nearly $800 million in military aid since 2002.

Chinese-Filipino relations were strained in 2013 when Manila asked an international tribunal in The Hague to rule on China’s claim to large parts of the South China Sea, where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China but Beijing, which has been building and fortifying artificial islands in the area, refused to recognise the decision.

Duterte reiterated on Thursday that he wanted to avoid confrontation with China and saw no need for urgency in pressing it to abide by the ruling.

He also played down concerns that China was militarising the South China Sea and appeared unperturbed by its dredging work and building activity, much of which falls within what Manila considers its Exclusive Economic Zone.

Reporting by Karen Lema and Manuel Mogato; Editing by Kevin Liffey