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Pentagon chief urges Southeast Asia security cooperation

Robert Burns - Associated Press

KO OLINA, Hawaii — Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Friday opened talks in Hawaii with his counterparts from 10 Southeast Asian nations, even as U.S. relations with the Philippines, a longtime American ally, grew shakier.

Carter said in opening comments to the meeting at a seaside resort on the island of Oahu that he wants to encourage more regional cooperation in Asia and the Pacific on key issues like maritime security and combatting terrorism.

As part of a broader Obama administration push to "rebalance" its security interests by paying greater attention to Asia and the Pacific after 15 years focused mainly on the Middle East, Carter is pitching the idea of an Asian security "network."

"The network will help us uphold important principles like resolving disputes peacefully; ensuring countries can make their own choices free from foreign coercion and intimidation; and preserving the freedom of overflight and navigation guaranteed by international law," he said.

A more immediate issue not mentioned by Carter in his formal remarks is a steep deterioration in relations with the Philippines.

When Carter visited the Philippines in April, he praised the strength of the partnership. Earlier this week in San Diego he called U.S.-Philippine defense relations "ironclad."

That seeming closeness took a sharp downturn when Rodrigo Duterte was elected president in June. In early September, President Barack Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte after the Philippine leader publicly called him a "son of a bitch." Later, Duterte said he regretted the comment.

Earlier this week, Duterte said joint military exercises of Filipino and American troops scheduled for next week will be the last such drills, although his foreign secretary quickly said the decision was not final. Duterte said the Philippines will maintain its military alliance with the United States because they share a 65-year-old mutual defense treaty.

And on Friday, Duterte raised the rhetoric over his bloody anti-crime war to a new level, comparing it to Hitler and the Holocaust and saying he would be "happy to slaughter" 3 million addicts.

Aides to Carter said he likely would seek clarification in Hawaii from his Philippine counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, regarding the future of U.S.-Philippine military exercises. Lorenzana is well-known to U.S. officials after serving for more than a decade at the Philippine Embassy in Washington prior to taking the defense portfolio after Duterte was elected.

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