Philippine and US military officials agreed to scale back joint exercises and reduce US troop deployments, a Philippine general involved in the talks said on Tuesday, though a statement issued by the allies spoke of “close cooperation”.
The joint statement omitted mention of any reduced level of engagement between the two militaries, though President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed his opposition to having foreign troops on Philippines’ soil and threatened to scrap exercises and abrogate pacts.
US officials present at the talks in Manila took no questions, and the joint statement was issued via the hosts. Reading the statement, spokesman Brig Gen Restituto Padilla said there would be continued “close cooperation in areas central to both our national and security interests”.
That would include humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, counter-terrorism and maritime security, he said.
But one Philippine general involved in the talks said the two sides also agreed to reduce the size and frequency of joint exercises and the number of US troops taking part.
“The two allies will focus more on humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations and other non-traditional military training and exercises,” said the general, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
The number of US troops would be “small”, he added. Some 5,000 American soldiers have taken part in exercises in the Philippines in the past two years.
The Philippines has for decades been one of the United States’ most important Asian allies but the relationship has been shaken by Duterte voicing disdain and mistrust of Washington.
Speaking to business leaders in Beijing last month, Duterte spoke of his “separation” from the US. A few days later he backtracked on those comments.
In Peru on Saturday, Duterte met Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time and bemoaned what he called hypocrisy and “bullying” by the US and allies.
The Philippine general said the defence ministry had instructed the military to scale back joint exercises, which should be “refocused on disaster” relief, and end naval and amphibious landing drills.
Planned US deployments under a 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) – which Duterte has said he would try to stop – would go on as scheduled.
“But, that too, we will see a scaling down on the number of aircraft and troops rotated in our bases,” the general added.
Despite Duterte’s threats, Philippine military chief Gen Ricardo Visaya and the commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, met in Manila on Tuesday.
“The successful completion of the (meeting) ensures continued robust relations between the US and Philippine militaries,” Padilla told reporters. “This highlights the enduring commitment of both countries to the US-Philippine alliance.”
But even with Duterte’s anti-American sentiment, Philippine-US joint exercises have continued to take place and Harris said at a Washington event last week: “There has been no change in anything with the Philippines.”
Duterte’s war on drugs – which has seen more than 4,700 people killed – is one of the main causes for differences with the US. The United Nations, the European Union and rights groups have raised concerns about alleged extrajudicial killings and a breakdown in the rule of law.
Duterte has insisted he is not doing anything illegal, but would be “happy to slaughter” three million drug users.