HANOI, Vietnam – National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr urged reporters to look at President Rodrigo Duterte's intention to stop military exercises of Philippines and American troops as steps towards "demilitarization" in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
"We’re going into some kind of demilitarization in the area. So okay lang 'yun, okay. Exercises lang naman eh (So that's okay. They are just exercises after all)," he said on Wednesday night, September 28, right after Duterte's speech in front of Vietnam-based Filipinos.
The Philippine military has used these annual war games with American soldiers to train themselves in rough terrain combat, urban warfare, intelligence and communications, maritime surveillance, as well as rescue and relief in times of disaster.
In May 2015, the Philippines witnessed the biggest number of Filipino and American troops in joint exercises – 11,000.
Esperon, who was Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff under the Arroyo administration, explained that demilitarizing the disputed sea would diffuse tensions and pave the way for the peaceful settlement of conflicting claims.
"Ayaw ba niyo 'yun para maging tahimik, peaceful? Kung walang navy doon ang China, eh 'di wala. Those are our traditional fishing grounds, 'di ba? Kung walang navy ng China, eh 'di okay," he said.
(Don't you want that so it becomes quiet, peaceful? If the navy of China is not there, then nothing. Those are our traditional fishing grounds right? If there is no Chinese navy, then things will be okay.)
Esperon, however, did not explain how ending US-Philippines war games would convince China to also decrease their military presence in the West Philippine Sea. (READ: Duterte: Next PH-US military exercises last in my term)
Asked if putting an end to the military exercises was a condition set by China for the greenlighting of bilateral talks, Esperon said, "I don't think so."
The National Security Adviser also said stopping military exercises or war games doesn't mean there will no longer be any United States presence in the Philippines.
"Why will they have no presence? You have the Visiting Forces Agreement, you have the EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement)," he said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Esperon, Yasay versions
In fact, Esperon thinks Duterte only wanted to end the military exercises this year, not for his entire term.
"Ang pagkakaintindi ko (My understanding is), it's the last for the year…We will clarify," he said.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr has a different take on it: he said Duterte never said it was going to be the last. (READ: Yasay denies Duterte wants last military exercise with US)
The US is one of the Philippines' key allies, especially in the field of defense.
The Philippines has a Mutual Defense Treaty with the Western superpower, inked in 1951. They also have a Visiting Forces Agreement signed in 1998, which paved the way for the annual joint military exercises or war games, more popularly known as "Balikatan" exercises.
Despite these agreements, Duterte believes the US cannot be counted on to defend the Philippines' claim over the West Philippine Sea. Duterte has expressed his intention to pursue a foreign policy less dependent on the US.
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.