The Philippines and the United States have agreed to ramp up bilateral military activities next year to 261 joint exercises, from 258 this year.
The agreement was made during the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) meeting hosted by the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii last week which was attended by Military Chief General Eduardo Año and other senior officials of the Philippine military.
“We are levelling-up the activities,” said Año. President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military last year to minimize exercises with the U.S. Armed Forces, especially those conducted at the disputed South China Sea as Duterte sought to improve ties with Beijing.
But Año said there is a change in atmosphere after the president’s pronouncement that he "would rather be friendly" to Washington because the Americans have "redeemed themselves" and "have helped us a lot." “U.S. is not our enemy. China is not our enemy,” said Año.
“Our utmost priority is the interest of the country, that’s all.” Exercises in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) such as the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) as well as the joint Amphibious Landing Exercises (Phiblex) were scrapped following Duterte’s order to scale down joint military activities with Washington.
The activities scheduled next year include various exercises, conferences, consultations on territorial defense, disaster response, counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance, construction of roads and school buildings as well as construction of U.S. facilities in key military areas where American forces will be staying while on training in the country.
Año said that the president did not specify the activities they would engage in.
“He just said continue the engagement with the United States. They are still our number one ally.”
By Roy Ramos in Zamboanga, Philippines