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U.S. and Philippine troops salute during a ceremony to kick of annual Balikatan drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017.

U.S. and Philippine troops salute during a ceremony to kick of annual Balikatan drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

U.S. and Philippine troops salute during a ceremony to kick of annual Balikatan drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017.

U.S. and Philippine troops salute during a ceremony to kick of annual Balikatan drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

The directors of the Balikatan military exercise, Philippine army Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao and III Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, gave upbeat answers to reporters' questions about the drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017.

The directors of the Balikatan military exercise, Philippine army Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao and III Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, gave upbeat answers to reporters' questions about the drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

U.S. and Philippine troops and military and civilian leaders kick off the annual Balikatan exercise at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017.

U.S. and Philippine troops and military and civilian leaders kick off the annual Balikatan exercise at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Troops march with U.S. and Philippines flags in front of military and civilian leaders to kick off annual Balikatan military drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017.

Troops march with U.S. and Philippines flags in front of military and civilian leaders to kick off annual Balikatan military drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

U.S.and Philippine troops and military and civilian leaders kick off the annual Balikatan exercise at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017.

U.S.and Philippine troops and military and civilian leaders kick off the annual Balikatan exercise at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017. (Allen Onstott/Stars and Stripes)

The directors of the Balikatan military exercise, Philippine army Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao and III Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, gave upbeat answers to reporters' questions about the drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017.

The directors of the Balikatan military exercise, Philippine army Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao and III Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, gave upbeat answers to reporters' questions about the drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017. (Allen Onstott/Stars and Stripes)

III Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, gave upbeat answers to reporters' questions about the Balikatan drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017.

III Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, gave upbeat answers to reporters' questions about the Balikatan drills at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines, Monday, May 8, 2017. (Allen Onstott/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP AGUINALDO, Philippines — American and Philippine forces kicked off a muted version of the annual Balikatan military exercise Monday, just months after the country’s leader threatened to scrap the drills following U.S. criticism of his drug war.

Five thousand personnel, including about 2,700 U.S. troops — half the number who joined last year’s drills — will train to respond to disasters and battle terrorists. The 12-day exercise won’t include the usual live-fire exercises geared toward territorial defense or maritime security, officials said.

The changes were made at the behest of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been at odds with the U.S. and Europe over his extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users, as well as reluctance to provoke China over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

However, the atmosphere at Balikatan’s opening ceremony in Quezon City suggested the U.S.-Philippines relationship has improved since the election of President Donald Trump, who has not publicly criticized the drug war and, last month, invited Duterte to the White House.

Hundreds of U.S. and Filipino troops, Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim watched a flag unfurl inside the Camp Aguinaldo Commissioned Officers’ Club, signaling Balikatan’s start.

Philippine Army Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao and III Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the exercise’s directors, gave upbeat answers to reporters’ questions about the drills.

Duterte approved of Balikatan going ahead and officials are already talking about next year’s event, said Lactao, who added both forces will learn a lot from each other and share skills and information that will strengthen the alliance.

Duterte’s predecessor was far more concerned about partnering with U.S. ships and aircraft to patrol Philippine-administered territory from China, which has blocked access and resupply to islands it considers its own.

Although an international tribunal ruled largely in favor of the Philippines last year — a ruling that China ignored — Duterte has shelved the dispute in favor of currying economic favor with Beijing.

Asked why the focus had moved away from territorial defense and maritime security, Lactao said political authorities set the priorities but that military skills used for humanitarian assistance, disaster response and counterterrorism are the same as those needed in conventional operations.

“Moving a force in a country like the Philippines … those are skills that are pertinent to any type of military operation,” Nicholson said. “That fits well whether it is a conventional force operation or humanitarian disaster relief.”

U.S. personnel involved in Balikatan aren’t disappointed about the changes, he said.

“We were told this year it would be HADR [humanitarian assistance and disaster relief] and counterterrorism and we have done everything we can to make it the biggest and most meaningful exercise we can,” he said.

It’s a privilege for U.S. forces to train with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Nicholson added.

Balikatan changes annually and 2018’s exercise could be larger or smaller, Nicholson said.

“I’m confident there will be a Balikatan next year and the year after that,” he said. “I hope it gets bigger.”

There will likely be any number of opportunities for increased levels of cooperation and exercises, Nicholson said.

“I would not say we are limited to where we are now,” he said. “This is a long-term enduring relationship. I’m very confident that our cooperation and collaboration and our exercises will continue to progress for many, many years and decades.”

robson.seth@stripes.com

Twitter: @SethRobson1

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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