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What's behind Duterte's pause of US-Philippines military cooperation?

Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced a pause in plans for joint military exercises in the South China Sea. Other military cooperation is also expected to end. Is this a breakdown in relations or the search for a better position?

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    US military forces aboard Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) maneuver on the South China Sea near the shore during the annual Philippines-US amphibious landing exercise (PHIBLEX) in San Antonio, Zambales province, Philippines, on Oct. 7, 2016.
    Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
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For the United States and the Philippines, military cooperation may be a thing of the past – at least for now.

Plans for joint patrols and naval exercises in the South China Sea are on hold, Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters Friday, in a message he said had been communicated to the US military. Under President Rodrigo Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, the US and Philippine militaries held two rounds of naval exercises there. Other military cooperation is also expected to draw to a close following the joint amphibious military exercises currently going on, Secretary Lorenzana said.

The shift is the latest indicator of a cooling in relations between the United States and its one-time colony. Some may see it as an effort on the part of Mr. Duterte to act on the nationalist rhetoric that propelled him to power. On another interpretation, reducing military cooperation with the US frees the Philippines up to seek new military partnerships. Lorenzana implied the move might be temporary.

"I think it's just going through these bumps in the road," he told a news conference on Friday. "Relationships sometimes go to this stage ... but over time it will be patched up."

Until the Duterte's recent election, the US-Philippine relationship had been growing stronger for years, according to Bloomberg. One recent example of cooperation: the Enhanced Defense Coordination Agreement. Signed in 2014, it gave the US more access to Philippine bases. The US military has also had a counter-terrorism presence – originally part of Operation Enduring Freedom – on the Philippine island of Mindanao since 2002.

Duterte swept to power in May, with a wave of popular support for his anti-drug crackdown. His war on drugs has led to the deaths of more than 3,600 drug suspects since he took office in June. His "strongman" image, in addition to falling crime rates, makes him extremely popular within the Philippines. But the pushback his methods have received from Western governments and human rights organizations may be partially responsible for the cooling in relations, perhaps encouraging Duterte to seek military partners elsewhere.

Lorenzana said Friday that Duterte has contacted Russian and Chinese leaders, with the aim of acquiring defense equipment from them. The defense secretary plans to travel to Beijing and Moscow to discuss potential deals, he said.

Filipinos have expressed concerns in the past about China's actions in the South China Sea, particularly the 2012 seizure of the Scarborough Shoal, which once belonged to the Philippines. But some say that the US has not given the Philippines enough support, particularly compared to the way it has behaved when Japan's interests are threatened.

The Duterte administration appears to be exploring whether the Philippines can protect itself without help from the US. Lorenzana announced that the US troops involved in counterterrorism will be asked to leave as soon as the Philippines acquires surveillance capabilities to take over these activities. Last month, Duterte said that a US presence could actually be counterproductive, according to United Press International.

"If [terrorists] see an American, they would kill him. They would demand ransom, then kill him," Duterte reportedly stated.

But the end goal may be strengthened relations with the US, Anni Piiparinen, assistant director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told The Christian Science Monitor on Tuesday.

"[Duterte's] preference for strengthened cooperation with Russia and China seems rather like a bargaining chip that the president is using to pit one superpower against the other in the hopes of striking better deals or negotiating positions with the US, [rather] than a real shift in foreign policy," she said.

Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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