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US-Philippine Link Strong Despite Bluster in Manila: PACOM

U.S. Marines from the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade and their Philippine counterpart salute at the closing ceremony of the 33rd joint US-Philippines amphibious landing exercises dubbed PHIBLEX, Philippines, Oct. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
U.S. Marines from the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade and their Philippine counterpart salute at the closing ceremony of the 33rd joint US-Philippines amphibious landing exercises dubbed PHIBLEX, Philippines, Oct. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

The head of U.S. Pacific Command said relations with the Philippine military remain strong in spite of the Philippine president's recent anti-American rhetoric.

"I am not seeing any slowdown in the Philippines as an outcome from what has come out of the government," Adm. Harry Harris told an audience at a Nov. 15 leadership discussion in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Defense One. "I'm headed to the Philippines on Sunday for meetings with my Philippine counterparts."

The defense cooperation agreement "remains in place," despite increased uncertainty about the future of the treaty with Manila after Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte said he wanted to scale back military engagements with the U.S. and told President Barack Obama to "go to hell."

Duterte took office June 30. His relationship with Obama has deteriorated since U.S. officials expressed reservations about his anti-drug war, which some say has resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 people since July, the Associated Press reported.

The atmosphere may be improving as a result of the recent U.S. presidential election. Duterte said his ties with the United States are likely to improve once President Elect Donald Trump takes office in January, the AP reported.

Harris said he has seen no significant changes to the military agreements the two countries have shared since 2002.

"The military exercise program remains on track; we have not been asked to remove U.S. forces from the Philippines," Harris said.

"Special Operations Command, Pacific, or SOCPAC, continues to provide assistance to the Philippines against violent extremists like the Abu Sayyaf, an organization that has sworn allegiance to ISIS."

Harris said he "would expect maybe a refocusing or maybe re-scoping of some of the big exercises in 2017," and said he would have more details after his upcoming visit to Manila.

The Philippine government allows the U.S. Military the use of five military bases in the country, and "I have no reason to believe it will change," Harris said.

The presence of U.S. troops is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, a former American colony. The Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to close down major U.S. bases at Subic and Clark, near Manila.

This changed significantly in since 2002 when American troops began taking part in counter-terrorist training exercises in the southern Philippines as well as participating in annual combat exercises with Filipino troops dealing with extremist forces linked to al-Qaida.

"At the request of the Philippine government, we continue to assist them with their fight against terrorist elements, particularly in the south, Harris said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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