US-Philippines ties are experiencing “bumps on the road” and the Philippine military could manage if treaty ally the United States were to withdraw aid, the defense minister said on Friday.
The Philippines intended to buy arms from China and Russia and there had been no adverse reaction from within the military to President Rodrigo Duterte’s vows to scale back defense ties with the United States, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
Lorenzana’s remarks suggested he was following other top officials in Duterte’s administration in rallying behind the maverick president’s tough anti-US agenda after weeks of scrambling to manage the fallout from his outbursts and threats to downgrade the alliance.
Lorenzana had earlier in the week set a conciliatory tone, saying Duterte may have been misinformed when he said US-Philippine military exercises were of no benefit to his country.
But on Friday Lorenzana said the value of US military aid to the Philippines was “not that much”, and the military could ask Congress to make up for a shortfall of some US$50 million-US$100 million a year in US military aid.
“We can live without (that),” Lorenzana told a foreign correspondents’ forum.
Duterte has called on US soldiers to leave the country and threatened to abrogate the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
The EDCA is an executive agreement that allows more US troops to hold joint military exercises with their Philippine counterparts and to establish the maritime security initiative for US allies in the region.
The US government earmarked US$120 million to the Philippines for the construction of US military facilities in Nueva Ecija, Cagayan de Oro, Pampanga, Mactan and Puerto Princesa, most of them facing the South China Sea. Manila says this is the biggest allocation from the US in 15 years since their joint military drills began and it is another indication that the US troops will remain in the Philippines.
While the US government claims that the proposed increase in US troops in the Philippines through the EDCA has nothing to do with tensions in the South China Sea, the strategic positioning of their military facilities is meant to quickly respond to any crisis there.
Countering Duterte’s remarks that he would scrap the EDCA treaty and forge new defense ties with China and Russia, Pentagon spokesperson Jeff Davis asserted: “In as much as our alliance with the Philippines is concerned, it’s very much solid and stable and secure and on track.”
Emma Naggy, deputy spokesman of the US embassy in Manila, insisted that the relationship with Manila is stable and both countries have to move forward.
The US embassy also released a press statement saying the US will continue its alliance commitments with the Philippines, and they expect the Philippines “to do the same.”
Despite Duterte’s diatribe against US President Barack Obama, the US has remained calm and diplomatically appealed to the Philippine government to honor alliance commitments.
In the meantime, on Tuesday the Philippines and the United States launched annual joint military exercises that will go on to October 12.
The joint military exercise began in 2002 with just 200 soldiers from each country in Zamboanga City, but that number has increased since China started building structures in the South China Sea.
The US government has found an ally in Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, a former US-based lawyer and Hawaii university lecturer.
Yasay was quoted by ABS-CBN as saying that all treaties between the Philippines and the US, including the EDCA, will outlast Duterte’s six-year term, and the President cannot abrogate the agreements.
Another US ally is Philippine Marines head Maj. Gen. Andre Costales who said during the Philbex opening ceremony last month that cooperation between the Philippine Marine Corps and the United States Marine Corps has withstood the test of time.
However, he later added: “We must seek to expand our initiatives with other willing partners who share with us our vision of commitment, cooperation and capability to protect and preserve our cherished freedom.”