‘Last one’: Joint war games are over, Duterte tells US citing China concerns

Philippines' president Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a meeting with members of the Philippino community in Vietnam in Hanoi on September 28, 2016. © Hoang Dinh Nam
Outspoken Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has declared that the upcoming set of joint military exercises with the US will be “the last one”, citing possible tensions with China.

Duterte made the remarks during a visit to Vietnam on Wednesday, where he was meeting members of Hanoi’s Filipino community.

“I'm serving notice now to the Americans,” Duterte said. “I will serve notice to you now that this will be the last military exercise. Jointly, Philippines-the US: Last one.”

Duterte did not mean, of course, that their long-standing partnership was over, promising to “maintain the military alliance, the RP-US pact which our countries signed in the early ‘50s”. But he also made clear he was keeping regional geopolitics in mind as well.

“You are scheduled to hold war games, which China does not want,” he said.

The annual US-Philippine military drills are due to take place from October 4-12 on the islands of Luzon and Palawan. Some 1,400 US soldiers from Okinawa and 500 Filipino troops are set to take part in amphibious and live-fire training.

Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. tried to downplay Duterte’s comments, insisting they were taken out-of-context and that he was merely repeating his earlier statement that there would not be joint Philippine-American patrols in the South China Sea.

“What he said was that, as he said before, there will be no joint patrols with a grey ship of any nation in the South China Sea,” Yasay said to a group of reporters, including from the news site Rappler, “because that would be a provocative act.”

“He will continue to respect our treaty arrangements and commitments with the United States,” Yasay added.

The Philippines is a crucial American ally in South East Asia, serving as a guard against Chinese influence. However, relations between the two countries have deteriorated under President Duterte, who has expressed his disdain for international criticism over his anti-drugs campaign over the course of which more than 3,000 people have been killed.

He also stirred tensions by referring to Barack Obama as a “son of a whore” in Tagalog and calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Mindanao, where he said they drew the ire of local Muslims.

The strained US-Filipino relationship calls into question the Obama administration’s planned ‘pivot’ to Asia, as Duterte threatened to leave the UN completely and form a rival organization with China and other countries. China and the Philippines also have a tense relationships due to disagreements over the South China Sea.