Philippines, US start joint annual drills in Manila

The 12-day exercise won't include the usual live-fire exercises geared toward territorial defense or maritime security, officials said.

Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao, left, and Lt.Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, center, co-directors for this year's joint U.S. -Philippines military exercise dubbed "Balikatan 2017", unfurl the joint military exercise flag at the opening ceremony Monday, May 8, 2017 at Camp Aguinaldo in suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines.

Duterte responded to criticism from then-US president Barack Obama by repeatedly using personal slurs against him.

The annual joint exercises pushed through despite Duterte's threat previous year to have them scrapped altogether.

Only 5,400 Filipino and American soldiers are participating in the 10-day exercises, down from 11,000 past year, noted Major Celeste Frank Sayson, a spokesman for the Balikatan.

There will also be no focus on boosting the Philippines' maritime defence capabilities, which in previous years had been widely seen as a show of strength against Beijing over competing claims in the South China Sea.

"We will be having small arms military-to-military activities, some joint special operations activities which is really aligned to counter-terrorism", said Balikatan spokesperson for Philippines Major Frank Sayson.

"We were told this year it would be HADR [humanitarian assistance and disaster relief] and counterterrorism and we have done everything we can to make it the biggest and most meaningful exercise we can", he said. "And so we are looking forward to a great couple of weeks", Nicholson said. Authorities say about 5,400 solders are participating this year.

Mr Prashanth Parameswaran, a security and foreign policy expert at Tufts University, said it is "still early days, with new leaderships on both sides, and things could change further down the line in Manila's ties with the major powers as they have often done in the past".

But the American co-director for Balikatan, Lieutenant-General Lawrence Nicholson, said the USA hoped the exercises would expand again.

It's a privilege for US forces to train with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Nicholson added.

"This year's exercises provide both the armed forces of the Philippines and the USA the necessary capability training in responding to disasters, conducting rescue operations during crisis and meeting the challenges of violent extremism", he added.

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