FILE PHOTO - Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) transits in formation with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship JS Kirisame (DD 104) during bilateral training in South China Sea on April 21, 2015. Courtesy David Flewellyn/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

MINDANAO, Philippines – Last Tuesday (Oct 11) was significant for the Philippines. The day marked the early end to the US-Philippines military drills which was supposed to go on till Oct 12.

Four US warships — USNS Fall River, USS Green Bay, USS Bonhomme Richard and USS Germantown – had already left Subic Bay free port on Oct 10.

There may be genuine reasons for this change of plans but many Filipinos and the outside world immediately linked it with Duterte’s recent statement that this would be the last military drill between the two countries.

Also on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines can survive without an alliance with the US by seeking the support of countries like Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Earlier, President Rodrigo Duterte had asked US President Barack Obama to “go to hell” for questioning his war on drugs, threatened to break up ties with the US and even told Washington to bring their military aid elsewhere — this despite the US government allocating $90 million as military assistance for joint military exercises and to acquire a number of modern military assets. Duterte also told the defense department this year’s war games with the US would be the last.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) too reported that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and series of war games will be undergoing assessment. EDCA is an executive agreement that will allow a bigger number of US troops to undergo joint training with their Philippine counterparts.

AFP spokesman Restituto Padilla said defense officials would make an assessment of the merits of the drills and its decisions would be conveyed to the U.S. Around 1,400 US military troops and 400 Philippine soldiers had participated in the latest exercises.

Is there a method in Duterte’s madness as he continues his tirade? Amid the anti-American rhetoric, he still says the Philippines would maintain its existing defense treaties and its military alliances. Lorenzana too said Philippines would continue its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Is Duterte building pressure on the US to extract more concessions?

Amid the confusion created by Duterte’s conflicting statements, the military ties between the Philippines and the US face an uncertain future, more so as the maverick President courts China and Russia.

The plans by the US to build five military facilities in different parts of the Philippines may be affected now. These facilities are part of the EDCA which the two countries had signed on April 28, 2014.

Many Americans living and doing business in the Philippines are worried over the developments.

Ebb Hinchliffe, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce, was quoted by Reuters as saying that Duterte’s comments have left Americans and US businesses in the Philippines jittery about their future.

But a Social Weather Stations poll from Sept. 24 to 27 published on October 18 showed that 76% of the 1,200 respondents trusted the United States and only 22% of the respondents trusted China.

Around 4 million Filipino-Americans are living in the United States and about 220,000 US nationals live in the Philippines either as expats or retirees. According to the US State Department figures, an additional 650,000 American tourists visit the Philippines each year.

One reason for Duterte asking US troops to better leave Philippines is said to be his concern over the safety of US tourists visiting the country. The Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) in the restive Mindanao in south is kidnapping tourists for ransom and killing them if the money is not delivered within the deadline.

Many residents are surprised that despite over 15 years of US-Philippine joint military exercises, ASG continues targeting tourists.

But under the Philippine laws, the role of US troops is limited to advising their Philippine counterparts how to fight ASG. No wonder, ASG militants remain elusive.

Noel Tarrazona

Noel Tarrazona is a freelance international journalist and a graduate school lecturer.

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