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Duterte raises doubts about Philippine military alliance with the US

MANILA — Military and diplomatic officials in the Philippines were facing a quandary Thursday after President Rodrigo Duterte distanced the country further from the United States, its biggest defense ally, by saying he would end joint military exercises like one scheduled for next week and would pursue closer ties to China and Russia.

Speaking to Filipinos in Vietnam late Wednesday, Duterte said that although he was preserving the 65-year military partnership between Manila and Washington, he was eager to strengthen relations with powers closer to home.

He said Russia, where Philippine diplomats recently held embassy-level talks on procuring military hardware, had invited him to visit.

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“So, I am serving notice now to the Americans and those who are allies,” he said. “This will be the last military exercise. Jointly, Philippines-US, the last one.”

On Thursday, the Department of National Defense said in a brief statement that it was waiting for “further orders” from Duterte regarding the joint exercises. Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana is seeking “clarification and guidance” from the president regarding the policy, it said.

“All agreements and treaties with the US are still in effect,” the statement added. “As to succeeding exercises, we will have to sit down with our US counterparts to discuss them.”

The department said it would not comment on the matter, pending clarification from Duterte, and the US Embassy in Manila said it had heard nothing formally from the Philippines.

“We have not received an official request from the Philippine government,” said an embassy spokeswoman, Molly Koscina.

The president’s remarks on Wednesday followed his angry retorts to the United States recently after Washington questioned his government’s continuing antidrug war, which has left more than 1,300 people dead, many of them victims of unknown vigilantes.

In his speech, he also lashed out at President Obama and others who have raised questions about the drug campaign. He has invited experts from the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union to come to the Philippines to observe the efforts firsthand.

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Richard Javad Heydarian, who teaches political science at De La Salle University in Manila, said Duterte’s latest move could provoke a backlash from the Philippine security establishment, which remains deeply dependent on Washington.

“When it comes to Duterte, it is hard to say whether this is another instance of pure bluster and bravado or a final policy statement,” Heydarian said. “I personally doubt he will go ahead with severing military ties with the US entirely.”

He said the president’s statements were timed to provide a favorable atmosphere before a visit he has planned to China.