Philippines, US to hold military drills amidst cooling relations under Duterte
Philippines coast guard Reuters (Representational Image)

The Philippine military said on Sunday that it would hold annual exercises with US troops next month. It also reaffirmed its commitment to the alliance despite cooling relations under President Rodrigo Duterte.

The 10-day exercises will be the first to be held under Duterte. Initially, the leader suggested to cancel the drills and had called for the withdrawal of American troops. This would have questioned Manila's 70-year-old alliance with Washington as Duterte looks instead to court China.

The outspoken Filipino leader, who has gained a lot of international criticism for his drug war that has seen thousands killed, has since softened his stance on working with the US military.

According to reports, the annual military exercises, known as Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder), will now go ahead in May. It will focus on counter-terrorism and disaster response as the Philippines battles Islamic militants in their lawless southern strongholds.

"It will be scenario-based like (preparing for) a big storm hitting the Philippines or the possibility of terrorism," Balikatan spokesman Major Celeste Frank Sayson told AFP.

"We are safe to say there will be no more live-fire exercises. We (will) focus on humanitarian and civil assistance," he added.

Balikatan had evolved from counter-terrorism manoeuvres against Islamic militants to simulations of protecting or retaking territory in the previous years. It happened while a dispute with Beijing over islands in the South China Sea escalated.

But, ever since Duterte took office in 2016, he has sought improved relations with China and has set aside the maritime row in favour of economic concessions.

Earlier, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had said that the exercises would refocus on fighting terrorism, which he described as the Philippines' top security problem.

The Philippines has been battling Islamic militants and pirates in the conflict-torn south for quite sometime now. Several groups from the south have pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Last week, the security forces clashed with the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group on a popular resort island. It was the first attack on a key Philippine tourist destination in recent years.