- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Over 8,000 American and Philippine troops kicked off this year’s annual Balikatan military exercises, the largest bilateral military drills between the two allies, on Tuesday despite previous threats by Manila to dissolve the partnership with Washington and the Pentagon.

Counterterrorism and regional defense will be the main scenarios driving this year’s iteration of the exercises, in the wake of the government’s brutal five-month offensive against ISIS-linked militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi last spring and China’s continued aggressiveness in the hotly disputed South China Sea.

The drills will also focus on interoperability between American and Philippine forces, amid recently strained relations between the U.S. and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.

“Through this exercise, we hope to improve our counterterrorism capabilities in order to build safer communities and work towards the eradication of global terror networks,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Tuesday, during the opening ceremony of the exercise.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, commander of the 3rd U.S. Marine Expeditionary Forces and exercise coordinator for the 3,000 American troops participating in this year’s Balikatan drills, said Tuesday the bilateral war games are an integral part of reaffirming Washington’s commitment to the Philippines and the Pacific writ large.

“Our nations expect us to be ready when they need us the most … [and] we must be ready. That is the great essence of Balikatan,” the three-star general said Tuesday, according to the Philippine Star.

Mr. Duterte, however, slammed the Balikatan drills and the general U.S. military presence in the Philippines during his Trump-like campaign for the presidency in 2016. He further infuriated Washington with his overt efforts to to initiate closer military and economic ties with China.

U.S. intelligence officials in February assessed that Mr. Duterte’s administration posed a viable threat to democracy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Aside from Mr. Duterte’s counternarcotics campaign, which has infuriated international human rights advocates who say Manila’s totalitarian crackdown has brutalized Philippine citizens, Malacanang also instituted martial law in the southern part of the country for the first time since the mid-1970s.

“Duterte has suggested he could suspend the constitution, declare a ‘revolutionary government,’ and impose nationwide martial law,” according to an annual report to Congress on worldwide threats issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that month.

The southern Philippines has been under martial law since June, after Manila launched a counteroffensive to flush out members of the ISIS-linked Maute Group based in Marawi. Government troops, with air, logistics and intelligence support from U.S. special operations forces recaptured the ISIS-held city in October after months of bloody, street-by-street fighting.

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