Philippines, US to hold annual 'Balikatan' military drills

Philippines Marines take part in a beach landing as part of the 11-day "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) annual joint US and Philippine military exercises at San Jose airport in Antique province, central Philippines on April 11, 2016

The Philippine military said Sunday it would hold annual exercises with US troops next month, reaffirming its commitment to the alliance despite cooling relations under President Rodrigo Duterte.

The 10-day exercises will be the first held under Duterte, who has suggested cancelling the drills and called for the withdrawal of American troops, putting into question Manila's 70-year-old alliance with Washington as he looks instead to court China.

The outspoken Filipino leader, who has earned international censure for a war on drugs that has seen thousands killed, has since softened his stance on working with the US military.

The annual military exercises, known as Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder), will now go ahead in May, focusing on counter-terrorism and disaster response as the Philippines battles Islamic militants in their lawless southern strongholds.

"It will be scenario-based like (preparing for) a big storm hitting the Philippines or the possibility of terrorism," Balikatan spokesman Major Celeste Frank Sayson told AFP.

"We are safe to say there will be no more live-fire exercises. We (will) focus on humanitarian and civil assistance."

In previous years Balikatan had evolved from counter-terrorism manoeuvres against Islamic militants to simulations of protecting or retaking territory, as a dispute with Beijing over islands in the South China Sea escalated.

But Duterte, who took office last year, has sought improved relations with China and has set aside the maritime row in favour of economic concessions.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had said the exercises would refocus on fighting terrorism, which he described as the Philippines' top security problem.

The Philippines is battling Islamic militants and pirates in the conflict-torn south, where several groups have pledged allegiance to Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Security forces in the past week clashed with the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group on a popular resort island, the first attack on a key Philippine tourist destination in recent years.

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