American and Filipino soldiers held an amphibious landing exercise Friday in the coastal province of Zambales, north of Manila, in the wake of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration that this year’s war games between the allied countries will be the last during his term.
The ship-to-shore maneuver in the South China Sea involved hundreds of U.S. and Philippine Marines landing on the coast aboard 13 amphibious assault vehicles to test the interoperability skills of the allied forces, especially in neutralizing a “notional” threat on land.
“Doing this exercise between the Philippine and the U.S. gives us the opportunity to increase our level of capabilities and capacity. Capabilities range from command and control, mobility, logistics, maneuver, and disaster response operations,” Philippine Marines spokesman Capt. Ryan Lacuesta told reporters at the exercise site.
Speaking for the U.S. side, Maj. Roger Hollenbeck of the Okinawa-based 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade said, “These marines on both sides love working together. The Philippines is a magnificent place to train and visit.”
The exercise was also observed by Japan Self-Defense Force officials.
Shortly after it concluded, Duterte, speaking in his home city of Davao on Mindanao island, reiterated his earlier pronouncement that the war games will be the last in his six-year term.
Duterte, who marked Friday his 100th day as president, has taken offense to what he calls as U.S. meddling in his country’s affairs by criticizing alleged extrajudicial killings amid his war on drugs.
He has since lashed at the United States for historical injustices stemming from its past occupation of the Philippines, for its wars in the Middle East, for the police killings of African-Americans at home, and for not sufficiently helping the Philippine military modernize.
“Assess yourselves. Because, if you don’t, you will lose the Philippines,” the 71-year-old self-proclaimed socialist said.
Earlier in the day, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that Manila has yet to formally notify Washington whether to continue, scale down, or scrap all 28 exercises that their two militaries hold every year. A meeting is scheduled in a month’s time.
Regarding the latest exercise, Lorenzana said, “If it’s the last, so be it. I have nothing to do with that. And we’re going to continue to work together. We got a great relationship.”
He called the “bumps” in bilateral relations a “healthy” development as it allows room for reassessment to ensure more benefits for his country.
Lorenzana also said he has informed the United States that plans for joint patrols in the South China Sea, agreed to under the previous administration of Benigno Aquino in April, have been put on hold, in line with Duterte’s intentions expressed earlier.
He said the Philippine military can still operate without aid from the United States.