The U.S. and the Philippines began their annual joint exercises on Tuesday, highlighting the alliance between the two countries even as the Philippine president calls for an end to the practice.
President Rodrigo Duterte's suggestion that combat exercises will end is part of a string of comments, including inflammatory and offensive ones, which have indicated his willingness to distance himself from the United States. He's also suggested he might align his country more closely with China and Russia.
All those remarks come amid intense criticism from the U.S. and Europe over Duterte's crackdown on drugs in the Philippines. Thousands of people have died in his war on drugs, killed by police or by vigilantes.
Duterte has said that this year's joint exercises with the U.S. will be the last of his six-year presidency, Michael Sullivan reports for NPR, but some in his own administration have downplayed his stance.
"Filipino officials have tried to temper the president's remarks, saying such a decision is not yet final," Sullivan reports. "U.S. officials say they've not been notified officially of any decision to scrap further drills. "
So the joint exercises continue as normal — with more than a thousand U.S. personnel working with hundreds of Filipinos, and commanders on both sides celebrating the military ties between the two countries, Sullivan says.
The exercises come as both the U.S. and the Philippines are closely watching China's actions in the disputed territories of the South China Sea. Before Duterte took office, U.S. military presence in the Philippines had been increasing as a result of those tensions.
The U.S. military says the joint military exercises that started Tuesday aren't just about "projecting power," The Associated Press reports, but also about actually expanding military capabilities and fostering more rapid and organized response to natural disasters.