MANILA (Reuters) - About 5,000 American and Philippine troops will hold humanitarian exercises next month instead of annual war games, scaling back military drills in response to President Rodrigo Duterte’s disdain for their longstanding defense alliance.
Troops taking part in “Balikatan” will simulate a response to a devastating super typhoon in the central Philippines, modeled on typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which killed at least 6,300 people and left more than 200,000 families homeless.
“Balikatan is designed to meet current challenges facing the Philippines,” U.S. embassy press officer Molly Koscina said in a statement on Monday.
Duterte has made no secret of his grudge against the United States and believes a U.S. military presence of any kind in the Philippines puts his country at risk of being dragged into conflict. He has threatened to abrogate treaties with Washington, but has yet to follow up.
The volatile leader has reached out to Russia and China and invited their warships to come to the Philippines for exercises too.
He has taken issue with the United States on its approach to the South China Sea and said Manila will never take part in joint patrols, to avoid provoking China.
Balikatan, which means “shoulder-to-shoulder”, has taken place on 32 occasions and every year since 2000, involving conventional warfare activities, as part of a mutual defense treaty between the two countries under a 1951 security pact.
Nearly 9,000 troops participated in a simulation of retaking an oil-and-gas platform last year, seized by an imaginary enemy, and practiced an amphibious landing on a Philippine beach near an area of the disputed South China Sea.
U.S. marines also used for the first time in the Philippines a long-range truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher.
A Philippine army spokesman said the downsizing of the exercises was in response to Duterte’s dislike of war games with Washington.
“We made some adjustments, based on the pronouncements of the president that such exercises should be focused on humanitarian operations,” Major Frank Sayson told reporters.
“Just to make it clear, this is not a war game.”
Sayson said the two sides agreed to scrap two major military drills – Amphibious Landing Exercise or “Phiblex” and Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT) - geared toward external and maritime defense.
He said the two armies would work on marksmanship and defusing of homemade bombs, as part of counter-terrorism exercises.
Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty