MANILA, Philippines — U.S. and Philippine special operations forces will begin annual combat exercises on Wednesday in a sign such joint drills are continuing despite vocal opposition by the Philippine president.
The U.S. military says that so far there's been no reduction in cooperation with the Philippines, a longstanding U.S. ally, despite President Rodrigo Duterte's threats to do so and his expressed desire to expand security ties with China and Russia.
But in a sign of a possible restriction, Philippine army spokesman Col. Benjamin Hao said Tuesday both the U.S. and the Philippines have agreed to forego live-fire drills in the field during the month-long Balance Piston exercises which will take place in the western province of Palawan.
He said about 40 elite Filipino troops are taking part but wouldn't say how many Americans. He didn't give a reason for dropping the live-fire maneuvers.
The Philippine defense department has said Duterte wants such overt assault drills to be discontinued.
In Washington, Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said Tuesday that there's been no change so far in U.S.-Philippine military cooperation.
Philippine and U.S. marines attend a combat lifesaver course on Oct. 8, 2016, during Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise 33 (PHIBLEX) on Colonel Ernesto Ravina Air Base.
Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Jesula Jeanlouis/Marine Corps
He said U.S. special operations forces are still advising the Philippines in counter-terrorism in the country's south, U.S. surveillance aircraft have continued rotational deployments at Clark Air Base, and plans for enhanced defense cooperation agreed by the previous Philippine administration remain on track.
"There are five Philippines bases that they have agreed to allow us to use. That hasn't changed so far and I have no reason to believe that will change. I will know more next week," Harris told reporters.
Next Tuesday, Harris said he will meet in the Philippines with the chief of staff of its armed forces, Gen. Ricardo Visaya, to discuss the schedule for military exercises in the coming two years. Harris said there could be a "re-scoping" of some of the big exercises in 2017.
Duterte has been antagonistic toward the U.S. for its criticism of his deadly anti-drug crackdown. He has publicly declared that he would halt all joint combat exercises with the Americans, but later walked back on the threat, sparking uncertainty among Philippine and U.S. officials.
Philippine defense officials said last week that Duterte agreed to allow a smaller number of exercises after they explained to him the benefits to the Philippines, including its capability to respond to natural disasters.
Live-fire maneuvers are traditionally one of the highlights of the Balance Piston exercise. Hao said marksmanship events will proceed but will be confined to a camp. The drills will also include mock sea interdictions, care for combat casualties and "combat" swimming drills, he said.
"This is an annual training event to test the basic warfighting skills of our soldiers and to foster an improved relationship of our armed forces," Hao told reporters.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.