Philippines, US launch scaled-down military exercises

Philippines, US kick off annual joint military exercise

Since taking office last June, he has taken a softer stance than his predecessor toward territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea and has ordered some of the joint drills scrapped. "We hope it gets bigger", Nicholson told reporters at Philippine military headquarters.

The changes were instructed by President Rodrigo Duterte who has had an antagonistic stance toward U.S. security policies while expanding security ties with China and Russian Federation.

They will involve 2,600 American soldiers and 2,800 Filipino troops compared to a total of 12,000 in the 2015 edition of Balikatan.

Troops from Australia and Japan will participate in the annual joint exercises between US and Philippine militaries that will officially kick off on Monday, a Philippine military spokesman said on Sunday.

Unlike the previous Balikatans, this year's bilateral exercise has been scaled down, with its activities only focusing on counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance and disaster response, leaving out its joint sea, air and land military operations aspect.

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

Officials from both sides spoke in glowing terms at the opening ceremony for Balikatan (meaning "Shoulder-to-shoulder") about the upcoming exercise and their nations' military relations. The two countries are long-time treaty allies and have conducted the yearly training to ensure interoperability of their forces.

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In a press conference, Lactao admitted that "political authorities" decided on the humanitarian and disaster relief focus of this year's military exercise.

"Balikatan" 2017 is noted for having mostly high-impact humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) drills which include urban search-and-rescue (including collapsed structure rescue in event of earthquakes) and landing of relief units and goods should in a typhoon-isolated area.

Balikatan changes annually and 2018's exercise could be larger or smaller, Nicholson said.

"Under the current situation in the world, when calamities are becoming more severe, we have to devote more resources and time to this kind of activity, and also to counterterrorism", Lorenzana said.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Central Command (CENTCOM) Commanding General Lieutenant General Oscar T. Lactao and United States III Marine Expeditionary Force Commanding General Lieutenant General Marine Lawrence D. Nicholson today led the opening of Balikatan 2017 at Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, May 8, 2017.

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