The Philippine defense chief said Friday that he told the US military that plans for joint patrols and naval exercises in the disputed South China Sea have been put on hold, the first concrete break in defense cooperation after months of increasingly strident comments by the country's new president.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also said that 107 U.S. troops involved in operating surveillance drones against Muslim militants would be asked to leave the southern part of the country once the Philippines acquires those intelligence-gathering capabilities in the near future.
President Rodrigo Duterte also wants to halt the 28 military exercises that are carried out with US forces each year, Lorenzana said. Duterte has said he wants an ongoing US-Philippine combat exercise to be the last during his six-year presidency as he backs away from what he views as too much dependence on the US.
Duterte, who took office in June, has had an uneasy relationship with the US, his country's longtime treaty ally, saying in recent speeches that he wants to scale back the presence of visiting US troops in the country, along with the annual bilateral military exercises.
But while some Filipino officials have walked back on Duterte's sometimes crude anti-US pronouncements early this week he told President Barack Obama "to go to hell" Lorenzana's comments show for the first time that the Duterte administration will act by rolling back cooperation with the US military in the Philippines.
Despite the difficult stage in the country's relations with its former colonizer, Lorenzana remained optimistic that those ties would eventually bounce back. "I think it's just going through these bumps on the road," Lorenzana told a news conference. "Relationships sometimes go to this stage ... but over time it will be patched up."
Duterte's falling out with Washington will not necessarily spread to US allies such as Japan, for example, which has committed to delivering patrol ships for the Philippine coast guard and has signed a deal to lease five small surveillance planes the country can use to bolster its territorial defense.