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Political rancor doesn't filter down to US-Philippines exercise

Filipino sailors watch U.S. and Philippines Marines land on a beach on the island of Luzon in assault amphibious vehicles Friday.

SETH ROBSON/STARS AND STRIPES

By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 9, 2016

CLARK AIR BASE, Philippines – Political acrimony at the top didn’t trickle down to the troops in the field as the U.S. and the Philippines held what could be their final joint exercise.

With new President Rodrigo Duterte again taking swipes at U.S. counterpart Barack Obama, handshakes and smiles reflected the goodwill between U.S. and Philippines marines after they stormed a beach on Friday as part of the PHIPLEX exercise.

“It would be unfortunate if it was the last,” said Maj. Roger Hollenbeck, a 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade spokesman at the beach. “PHIBLEX is in its 33rd iteration, but we have been working together for 70 years side-by-side as partner nations.”

Duterte, the firebrand maverick who took office June 30, has bristled at what he sees as interference by Obama and the United Nations in his crackdown on drugs, the signature issue of his election campaign, that has left more than 3,000 dead.

He mentioned twice during a speech Friday that this would be the last exercise with the U.S. and told Washington, the former colonial power here, to stop still treating the Philippines as a possession.

“Assess yourselves because if you don’t, you will lose the Philippines,” the Philippine Inquirer quoted Duterte as saying in Davao City.

The U.S. has awkwardly tried to brush off Duterte’s rhetoric, which has included calling Obama “the son of a whore,” and clearly hoped that other officials would convince him of the value of the military relationship.

But Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told Filipino reporters Friday that plans for joint U.S.-Philippine patrols and naval exercises in the disputed South China Sea have been put on hold. marking the first concrete break in defense cooperation. It is unclear whether a new agreement — signed last year by Duterte’s predecessor, that allows U.S. forces to use several bases here — will survive the rancor.

Duterte even dared Washington to use the CIA to oust him.

“If I’m ousted, that is part of my presidency. But for as long as I am there, don’t treat us like a doormat because you’ll be sorry for it. I don’t want to antagonize you but try to give us a little respect,” the Inquirer quoted him as saying. “You don’t go around reprimanding a head of state as if you were talking to a … [son of a bitch].

“I will not stick with you,” he said, noting that he has China and Russia waiting in the wings.

Duterte’s popularity is still flying high despite his combative approach. A new poll by the independent research group Social Weather Stations found 76 percent of the 1,200 respondents said they were satisfied with Duterte’s performance, while only 11 percent said they were dissatisfied. The remainder was undecided. The poll, conducted in late September, had a margin of error of 3 percentage points, the group said.

Marines from 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., worked with their Filipino counterparts for several days before the beach assault Friday. Hundreds of troops landed on the west coast of Luzon, the Philippines’ main island, in 13 assault amphibious vehicles launched from the dock landing ship USS Germantown as part of PHIBLEX.

Each of the floating armored vehicles transported six Filipino and six American Marines to the shore. As the personnel carriers emerged from the surf and advanced on their tracks across the sand explosives detonated inland to simulate support fire.

The vehicles drove on through a swamp and engaged an imaginary enemy with blank rounds while hundreds of Philippines sailors and Marines watched from the beach.

Filipino troops watching the training said they were not authorized to talk to the media. Meanwhile, U.S. forces did not facilitate interviews with senior commanders at the exercise.

But as the training ended, Brig. Gen. John Jansen, commander of the Okinawa-based 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, saluted and shook hands with several smiling Filipino officers including Navy Rear Adm. Narciso A Vingson Jr,, commander of the Naval Education and Training Command and Marine Lt. Gen. Romeo Tanalgo, chief of the Northern Luzaon Command.

The friendly display took place only a few feet from a tent where 45 members of local and international media had gathered to watch the beach assault.

Capt. DeWayne Papandrea, 37, the 2-4’s air officer, stood on the beach in driving rain with a radio ready to coordinate simulated air raids during the exercise until the rain and fog convinced commanders to go ahead without planes and helicopters.

Papandrea, an F-18 pilot who flew missions against the Islamic State in Iraq last year, said the Marines have been learning about Filipino culture from their counterparts.

“They offered us balut (chicken embryo in an egg, a local delicacy). Ten of our Marines shared it with them,” he said.

U.S. personnel can learn a lot from their Filipino counterparts, who have experience calling in close air support against Islamic rebels in the country’s south, he said.

Another 2-4 Marine, Sgt. Jacob Hunter, 25, of Easton, Pa., said he and his buddies have been working closely with the Filipino troops.

Hunter said he wasn’t aware of Duterte’s recent comments. He described the Philippines Marines as “squared away and fun to talk to,” and said the troops aren’t talking politics in the field.

Instead the Marines are swapping hats and badges, he said.

Robson.seth@stripes.com

Twitter: @SethRobson1