MANILA, PHILIPPINES - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has approved the continuation of joint military exercises with U.S. forces, but the number of drills will be reduced and will exclude mock assaults, defense officials said Wednesday.
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte also allowed the government to proceed with a 2014 defense accord with Washington permitting U.S. forces to be stationed temporarily at five designated Philippine military camps, along with their warships and planes.
Duterte had previously threatened to end military exercises with the U.S. and the presence of American forces in the country in about two years, saying the Philippines' still ill-equipped troops have not benefited from America's superior military.
Lorenzana said he and other security officials explained to the president at a Cabinet meeting on Monday how the Philippines benefits from the annual maneuvers.
"We presented to him the long years of bilateral relationship," Lorenzana said. "The Armed Forces of the Philippines enumerated the benefits obtained from these exercises."
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Molly Koscina cited the swift response of American forces after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the central Philippines in 2013. U.S. personnel reached the area four hours after the Philippines sought help.
U.S. troops, aircraft and aid, along with those from other countries, have been credited with preventing more casualties after the powerful storm struck. Haiyan left more than 7,300 dead or missing.
"That can't happen unless you have an alliance and that you train together and work together," Koscina said.
Defense department public affairs chief Arsenio Andolong said the changes in annual joint maneuvers will be discussed with American military officials led by U.S. Pacific Command chief Harry Harris Jr. at a Nov. 22 meeting in Manila.
Duterte ordered assault exercises to be discontinued, the defense department said.
Andolong said two naval exercises involving amphibious beach landing and boat raids may be stopped. A largescale exercise called Balikatan or shoulder to shoulder will be retained but will shift its focus to disaster response, humanitarian aid and counter terrorism, he said.
"We still have to discuss with the Americans what form this will take as it will be modified," Lorenzana told The Associated Press.
Duterte has opposed combat exercises, saying in September that China did not want such maneuvers. While wanting to scale back engagements with the U.S. military, Duterte has reached out to China and Russia for possible deals, including the acquisition of weapons and defense assets.
Lorenzana said he expected no major change in the Philippines' treaty alliance with the U.S. following the electoral victory of Donald Trump.
"Through the years, whoever wins, Democrat or Republican, the U.S. interest in the Asia-Pacific region has remained the same," Lorenzana said. We do not see any change with Trump's win."
"It has been a longstanding friendship that some misunderstanding and irritants along the way cannot alter in a grave way," he said.