MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine and U.S. troops kicked off on Monday annual joint exercises that are smaller in scale than in years past, focusing on disaster response and counterterrorism while excluding territorial defense operations and maritime security.
The changes were directed by President Rodrigo Duterte, who has had an antagonistic stance toward U.S. security policies while expanding security ties with China and Russia. Since taking office last June, he has taken a softer stance than his predecessor toward territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea and has ordered some of the joint drills scrapped.
Opening rites for the 12-day "Balikatan," or "Shoulder-to-Shoulder," exercises were led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim at the Philippine military's headquarters in metropolitan Manila.
Officials said 5,400 personnel — 2,600 Americans and 2,800 Filipinos — will be involved, or about half the 11,000 troops who took part last year. The two countries are long-time treaty allies and are conducting the yearly training for the 33rd time to ensure coordination and interoperability of their forces. Small contingents from Japan and Australia are also participating as observers this year.
This year's exercises will be based on a scenario of troops responding to a super typhoon hitting the Philippines.
Kim said the exercises address global challenges. "We recognize the need to work together to overcome the daunting challenges posed by international terror networks; we also understand that bilateral disaster response training can help save lives and help rebuild devastated communities," the ambassador said.
Lorenzana said what has changed in the exercises is a focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster response and counterterrorism. More resources need to be devoted to such activities because natural calamities are becoming more severe and the world faces challenges posed by violent extremism, he added.
"I think despite the fact that there is not a large-scale conventional force portion of Balikatan this year, the counterterrorism is legitimate, it's real, it's something we are doing together and I think the continued training at that is beneficial for both of our nations," said U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Lawrence Nicholson, the exercise co-director.
His Filipino counterpart, Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao, said the exercise's priority was chosen based on guidance from Duterte.