Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has retracted a decision to end a key defence pact with the United States, allowing large-scale combat exercises between US and Philippine forces to proceed.
Duterte's decision was announced on Friday by Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a joint news conference with visiting US counterpart Lloyd Austin in Manila.
It was a step back from the Philippine leader's stunning vow early in his term to distance himself from Washington as he tried to rebuild frayed ties with China over territorial rifts in the South China Sea.
"The president decided to recall or retract the termination letter for the VFA," Lorenzana told reporters, referring to the Visiting Forces Agreement. "There is no termination letter pending and we are back on track."
Austin thanked Duterte for the decision, which he said would further bolster the two nations' 70-year treaty alliance.
"Our countries face a range of challenges, from the climate crises to the pandemic and, as we do, a strong, resilient US-Philippine alliance will remain vital to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific," Austin said.
Terminating the pact would have been a major blow to America's oldest alliance in Asia, as Washington squares with Beijing on a range of issues, including trade, human rights and China's behaviour in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam and three other governments have been locked in the territorial standoff for decades.
The US insists on freedom of navigation in international waters, and doesn't recognise China's claims.
Duterte notified the US government in February 2020 that the Philippines intended to abrogate the 1998 agreement, which allows large numbers of American forces to join combat training with Philippine troops and sets legal terms for their temporary stay.
US and Philippine forces engage in about 300 activities each year, including the Balikatan, or shoulder-to-shoulder, exercises, which involve thousands of troops in land, sea and air drills that often included live-fire exercises.
They've often sparked China's concerns when they were held on the periphery of the sea Beijing claims as its own.
The pact's termination would have taken effect after 180 days, but Duterte has repeatedly delayed the decision.
Australian Associated Press