Relations with US ‘rock solid’ despite president’s calls for troop withdrawal - Philippines military

An Army spokesman has described defense relations with the United States as “rock solid” a day after Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said US troops should leave the south of his country.

We assure our people and allies that Philippine-US defense relations remain rock solid,” Philippine Army spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said in a statement, cited by Reuters.

The recent pronouncement will affect only a token number of American servicemen who are confined mainly in Zamboanga City… They [the US troops] provide technical assistance and training to their Filipino counterparts in combating terrorism in the Philippines,” the spokesman stated further.

President Duterte said he is opposed to US soldiers being stationed in Zamboanga, Southern Mindanao region, recalling how American troops took part in a pacification plan against Muslim Filipinos going back over a century. He said that this has caused a long period of resentment from the minority Muslim population against the majority Catholics in the south.

For as long as we stay with America, we will never have peace in that land… The special forces, they have to go. They have to go in Mindanao, there are many whites there, they have to go. I do not want a rift with America, but they have to go,” he said, as cited by AP.

The President also claimed the troop presence could complicate offensives against Islamist militants, conducted by the Philippine military in the region. Duterte did not, however, specify how the withdrawal will be carried out or give a timeframe within which it might take place.

The Philippines is on its way to a new foreign policy, one independent from the United States, and Washington will have to accept it eventually, believes Renato M. Reyes Jr., political activist and Secretary General of Bayan (an alliance of leftist organizations in the Philippines).

We appreciate the Philippines president asking for the withdrawal of US troops in Mindanao, the call is overdue,” Reyes told RT.

The US has exploited, or taken advantage of, the so-called ‘terrorist problem’ in the Philippines to be able to maintain a permanent presence in our country, project its power here in the region… There will be mounting pressure from various groups here in the Philippines for the pull-out of American forces [from] Mindanao. There will also be similar efforts to block any attempt to put up US military facilities,” he explained.

It will be hard for the United States to turn a blind eye to such remarks; the US will have to be content with the new reality that the Philippine government wants to lead an independent foreign policy.

[…] We can no longer allow the persistence of unequal, lopsided relations with the US. And I think that other ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries... will come to appreciate that the Philippine government has finally had the backbone to pursue its national interests and to stand up against the United States,” the analyst added.

Washington did not receive an official demand from the Philippine government regarding the US troops, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said, as cited by Reuters. The Philippines is one of Washington’s oldest military allies in Asia. The US currently has five bases in the country. US soldiers were stationed in Mindanao in 2002 to train and advise local government forces that were fighting Abu Sayyaf militants who are linked to Al-Qaeda. While the majority of the US military presence withdrew in 2015, US officials said that some troops have remained in an advisory role.