MANILA – More than 8,000 Philippine and United States troops began annual war games this week, underscoring their strong security ties despite controversy over the conviction of a U.S. Marine on rape charges.

In one of the first major exercises, hundreds of marines from the two countries jumped from helicopters and waded ashore in an amphibious operation in two areas north of the capital Manila on Tuesday, army spokesman Major Ramon Zagala said.

U.S. forces routinely train and advise Philippine military units, build roads and schools and conduct other humanitarian activities as part of joint efforts to fight Islamic militants.

These activities demonstrate the strong bilateral security relations between the two allies, Zagala told reporters, adding the drills will test the two militaries' inter-operability and rehearse a defense plan based on a 1951 mutual defense treaty.

Zagala said the large number of U.S. troops taking part in this year's exercises showed that the controversy over the custody of an American marine convicted of rape in 2006 had not affected ties.

In 2007, only about 300 U.S. troops took part in the annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises after Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was convicted for the rape of a Filipina at a former U.S. naval base in 2005.

Last year, more than 6,000 U.S. troops took part in the drills after Manila agreed to transfer Smith from a local prison to the U.S. embassy.

The woman who accused Smith has now effectively recanted her testimony and the case is up for appeal.

Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said the rape case was part of the ups and downs in the relations between Manila and Washington, and that calls from some in the Philippines to scrap the security agreement were unconstitutional.

In any relations, there are frictions, but on the whole, we have strong relations, Teodoro told reporters on Tuesday. There are ups and downs in our relations, but we always find mutually acceptable solutions to avoid problems, like Daniel Smith.


Analysts agreed the rape case was just a dot in the Philippines' relations with the United States, its former colonial master.

Noel Morada, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, said the decision by the Filipina to take back her testimony against Smith had diluted the case and had not affected the holding of military exercises.

I think the only time the country's relations with the United States were strained was when Manila pulled out its troops from Iraq, Morada told Reuters, saying the leadership change in Washington could strengthen relations further.

Obama is seeking new approaches in foreign policy and Manila could play a bigger role as Washington pushes democracy and human rights, he said, referring to U.S. President Barack Obama.

Retired navy officer Rex Robles, a security analyst, said the United States remains the dominant foreign military, political, economic and cultural influence in the country, but he believed Manila had fallen off Washington's radar screen.

We no longer enjoy a special relationship with the United States, Robles told Reuters. After we got rid of the U.S. bases in 1992, we lost a lot of leverage. When the president pulled out 50 Filipino soldiers in Iraq in 2004, we lost everything.

Robles said the level of U.S. military assistance had been declining due to concerns about political killings in the Philippines, citing figures released by the U.S. Congress that show foreign military funding falling from $39 million in 2007 to $15 million this year.

Since 2003, Manila has had a special non-NATO ally status with Washington, but receives far less aid compared to Israel, Egypt and Pakistan, which have similar status.

(Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)