MANILA—Annual US-Philippine military exercises involving thousands of troops will be expanded for the first time to include other countries, with Japanese and Australian forces invited to join what will be the 34th edition of the "war games."
The Philippines and the United States have been holding the "Balikatan" drills annually to test the readiness of their militaries to respond to threats that include natural disasters and militant extremist attacks.
The US embassy in Manila said in a statement on Thursday Australia and Japan, two US allies countries with strategic partnerships with the Philippines, would join the exercises taking place in multiple locations on the main island of Luzon, starting on May 7.
Britain has also been invited to observe training for the mitigation of post-disaster suffering.
The two weeks of exercises will focus on mutual defense, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief that can also "provide assistance in the event of crises that endanger public health and safety".
Soldiers from the US, Australia, Japan and the Philippines have already been renovating schools in four provinces north of Manila as well as providing medical and dental services in poor rural areas, the embassy said.
Philippine military spokeswoman Liezl Vidallon said the four countries would exchange and share information and conduct live- fire training.
The exercises were scaled back last year in response to President Rodrigo Duterte's disdain for the US-Philippine defense alliance.
He believes a US military presence of any kind in the Philippines puts the country at risk of being dragged into conflict, especially with China, as it beefs up its maritime defenses. (Reporting by Manuel Mogato Editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel)