Philippine Defense Secretary: We need the U.S., defense agreement should be honored

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The Philippines still counts on the military support of the United States in its fight against the Abu Sayyaf in the south, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Tuesday.

"I think we need them because they have some sophisticated equipment that we need to track the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and Sulu and all the lawless elements in Mindanao," Lorenzana told CNN Philippines in an exclusive interview on "The Source."

His remarks come amid a recent threat by President Rodrigo Duterte that he would not honor a defense treaty — the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) — signed by the Philippines and the U.S. in 2014 under the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III.

Lorenzana believed the agreement should be honored, but that Duterte had the prerogative to decide otherwise.

"I think it [EDCA] should be honored. But you know, it depends on him [Duterte] because he's the architect of our foreign policy," he said. "Pag sinabi niyang [If he says] we will remove them, then we will follow him. But we have to discuss first the pros and cons of having the EDCA here," Lorenzana added.

The Philippines and U.S. have been long-time allies, a relationship recently rocked by the president's anti-American sentiments. Duterte last week said that the Philippines would have its last joint military exercise with the U.S. during his term.  This was followed by a threat to junk the EDCA. Duterte asserted it was not valid because it did not bear the presidential signature.

However, Lorenzana revealed that he met late Monday with the President, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon and Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea. In that meeting, Yasay explained to the President why the EDCA was valid.

"One of the things that was clarified to the President by Secretary Yasay was, 'You know Mr. President, the documents [are] legal because it [EDCA] was signed by both the officials from the United States Ambassador Philip Goldberg and [then-Defense] Secretary Voltaire Gazmin who have authority from their presidents. Plus, it was certified by the Supreme Court," Lorenzana said on "The Source."

Asked if the President was no longer entertaining the idea of not honoring EDCA, Lorenzana said: "I think hindi naman siguro [I don't think so.]. He didn't say that last night."

The timetable for the implementation of EDCA would most likely be in 2017, since the U.S. still had to secure approval for funding from U.S. congress, Lorenzana said.

Military exercises to continue

Lorenzana, who returned late Monday from a meeting with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and his Southeast Asian defense counterparts, said Carter asked him about the future of joint military exercises.

"Not only him but also the Pacific Commander, Admiral [Harry] Harris and the SOCPAC [US Special Operations Pacific] Commander General [Bryan] Fenton, asked me. They talked to me one by one... I told him I haven't received official order about that," he said.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines and U.S. Marines from the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade and Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group will hold military exercises known as the Philippines Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX 33) from October 4 to 12, in Luzon and Palawan.

Lorenzana said he would meet with Philippine military leaders to assess the joint military exercises with the United States. "Since the exercises started in 1981, the Balikatan up to now, what has been accomplished? And to find out if really we need to continue this, continue or reduce the number of exercises or to scrap them altogether," he said.

Duterte has said  that he wanted U.S. troops to leave because their lives may be in danger amid simmering enmity towards them more than a hundred years after Americans massacred Muslims in Bud Dajo near the southern Philippine city of Jolo in 1906.

Related: No scheduled pullout of U.S. troops in Mindanao yet, Abella says

"I told the President they [the U.S. troops] are not actually on the field. They are all actually in one camp in Zamboanga City," said Lorenzana, who also assured Duterte that the troops can take care of themselves. "So later on he said, 'Okay, maybe they will leave in the future, not immediately.'"