Under Duterte, U.S. and Philippines Kick Off Largest Military Drills Ever

Around 8,000 U.S. and Philippine soldiers kicked off joint military drills Monday, the largest held so far under the Asian nation's leader Rodrigo Duterte.

Nearly 3,000 U.S. troops and 5,000 Philippine soldiers are participating in the drills, which will last for 10 days and focus on improving joint humanitarian and counterterrorism efforts in crisis situations, according to military officials.

The exercises are being staged almost one year after U.S. Special Forces arrived in the Philippines to assist local troops in their fight against Islamic militants backed by ISIS. Under local laws, it is illegal for foreign troops to participate in combat, and military officials stressed that the U.S. soldiers were only there to provide technical support. It took about six months for Philippine troops to liberate the city of Marawi, located on the island of Mindanao, from Islamic militants.

"We want both our forces to learn from our great and hard-earned experience in our past battles like Marawi," said the Phillippines' Marine Lieutenant General Emmanuel Salamat, according to ABC News. "We just want to help each other to be able to effectively combat future scenarios."

Despite the U.S. support, the country's leadership has been reluctant to host U.S. troops on its soil. In 2016, the Philippines' highest court authorized U.S. troops to return to the Asian nation for the first time since it had kicked out all American military presence more than two decades earlier. However, Duterte has since threatened to expel all U.S. troops from the country again. Reports last summer suggested that the country's military may have enlisted the aid of U.S. Special Forces without informing the president, who is wary of U.S. involvement in his country and has tried to forge closer ties with China and Russia.

The U.S. also views the Philippines as a key ally in its efforts to check Chinese influence in the region around the South China Sea, and has long lobbied to maintain a presence in the country. Last month, the two countries agreed to allow the U.S. to store military equipment on a Filipino airbase.