Duterte orders joint Philippine-US naval exercises scrapped

Maverick leader is keen for closer relations with Beijing and Moscow

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has ordered his defence minister not to prepare for joint military exercises with the US next year, further distancing the southeast Asian nation from Washington as ties with Beijing become warmer.

“I insist that we realign. There will be no more exercises next year. Do not prepare, I told defence secretary [Delfin] Lorenzana. Do not make preparations for next year. I do not want it anymore,” Mr Duterte said in a speech to mark the 115th anniversary of the Philippine coast guard.

“I will chart an independent foreign policy,” he said, quoted by the state news agency PNA.

The US and the Philippines staged a joint eight-day combat exercise that ended this week amid uncertainty over future co-operation, after Mr Duterte said the drills were only to the benefit of the US.


Since taking office in June, Mr Duterte has hailed increasingly warm relations with China and Russia and he is due to visit Beijing next week. In contrast, he has launched foul-mouthed tirades against Washington and the European Union.

Last week, he told Barack Obama to "go to hell", because the US leader has been critical of Mr Duterte's war on drugs, which has seen an estimated 3,000 extrajudicial killings.

And he warned that there was more disrespect to come.

“If I don’t respect you anymore, be prepared for the worst because I can give you gallons of gallons of epithets, curses,” Mr Duterte said.

His predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, was close to Washington during his period in office, and took a firm line against Beijing’s maritime ambitions in the South China Sea, including making a successful petition to an international tribunal in The Hague against China’s claims over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

While Mr Duterte renewed his criticisms against Washington, he also said he would not abandon a 1951 mutual defence treaty with the US that provides a security umbrella for the Philippines.

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Although his message is causing consternation and puzzlement in Washington, it is going down well at home.

An opinion poll released this week showed that Philippine voters gave Mr Duterte a job approval rating of 86 per cent after three months in office.

Washington's top diplomat for East Asia, assistant secretary of state Daniel Russel, told a round-table discussion with Washington defence journalists that he was baffled by Mr Duterte's "colourful" statements.

"But what that will ultimately translate [into] in terms of the ability of the Philippines to work with the United States on issues directly germane to security and even some of the regional and global challenges it faces . . . we don't have an answer to just yet," he said.

Outgoing US ambassador to Manila Philip Goldberg, to whom Mr Duterte has previously referred to as "annoying" and a gay "son of a whore", said Washington wants to continue its strong alliance with the Philippines.

“Some of the things are beyond my control, beyond the US control, but what I can tell you is the US has a string of commitments to the Philippines, to the people of the Philippines, to the economic wellbeing of the Philippines,” Mr Goldberg told reporters.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing