Philippine and U.S. military officials will meet late next month and decide the fate of decades-old joint exercises, defense sources said Wednesday, amid doubts over the future of the security alliance and a stream of mixed messages from Manila.
The meeting, an annual get-together to plan events for the year ahead, could bring some clarity to a Philippine position muddied by President Rodrigo Duterte's pronouncements about ending an alliance that he says has little value, contrary to the opinions of some military commanders.
"The meeting was supposedly on October 24, but it was moved to November 24 because they [Philippine military] wanted it after the U.S. elections," said a Philippine army general, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. The U.S. election is on November 8.
"As of now, we really don't know what military exercises will be stopped, because the president has not made any specific instruction."
Duterte on Wednesday reiterated his intent to revise or cancel crucial security pacts and scrap the war games.
His repeated outbursts against the United States have raised worries in Washington about the future of an alliance that is important to U.S. efforts to project power in Asia in the face of fast-rising China.
The Pentagon declined to comment when asked about the meeting, but a spokesman said it would be seeking clarification of Duterte's comments "through direct dialogue."
"We will continue to consult ... with our Filipino partners to appropriately tailor our assistance," Commander Gary Ross said. "We will continue to honor our alliance commitments and treaty obligations and expect the Philippines to do the same."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said "a string of counterproductive rhetoric" from Duterte had "injected some unnecessary uncertainty in the relationship." However, he reiterated that Washington had received no formal communication about making changes to the alliance.
"There's a diplomatic process where through a formal channel, the Philippines could formally notify the United States of their intent to ... alter the terms of the alliance," he told a regular news briefing. "We've received no formal notification along those lines."
The regular meeting between the head of the U.S. Pacific Command and the chief of staff of the Philippine military alternates each year between Honolulu and Manila and covers activities such as intelligence gathering, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and conventional exercises.
The army general said the Philippine defense minister would try to persuade Duterte in a cabinet meeting next week to retain some useful exercises, but the Philippine side sought assurances from its U.S. counterparts that it would not be treated as a vassal state.
"What we wanted is equal partnership with the United States," the source added. "But, if there is no change, I am afraid the Philippines will distance further from the United States."
A defense ministry official told Reuters the meeting was postponed because the president has not put down in writing what exercises with the U.S. would be scrapped.
"There was nothing to discuss because there was no specific instruction from the president," the official said, adding there are indications the Philippines will scale down the exercises.
The defense department says the two sides now hold 28 exercises each year, three of them large scale and the rest minor activities.
Washington has been Manila's closest security partner since the end of World War II, when the Philippines won independence from the United States. A mutual defense treaty was signed in 1951.
The United States had two of its largest overseas military bases in the northern Philippines before its withdrawal in 1992. It returned in 2000 for training and exercises and deployed 1,200 elite troops in the south.
The alliance strengthened further in 2014 with the signing of an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement allowing U.S. access to five military bases. Duterte threatened on Tuesday to get rid of the EDCA if he were in power long enough.