Philippines, US Set to Resume Full-Scale Joint Military Exercise

Jojo Riñoza and Luis Liwanag
Philippines, US Set to Resume Full-Scale Joint Military Exercise Philippine and U.S. Marines storm the beach as part of an amphibious landing during the 2018 Balikatan exercise at the Naval Education and Training Command in Zambales province, northwestern Philippines, May 9, 2018.

Treaty allies the United States and the Philippines are set to conduct their largest joint military training exercise since 2016, both sides said Tuesday, amid increasing incursions by Beijing into Manila’s waters in the contested South China Sea.

With the pandemic waning, and the Visiting Forces Agreement back on track, the two sides said that nearly 9,000 troops will focus on training in maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire and counterterrorism exercises. The 37th Balikatan (“shoulder-to-shoulder”) exercise is to begin on March 28 and end on April 8 at training sites in Luzon, the Philippines’ main island, the Combined Joint Information Bureau said.  

“During the Balikatan, the U.S. military and AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] will train together to expand and advance shared tactics, techniques and procedures that strengthen our response capabilities and readiness for real-world challenges,” said U.S. Maj. Gen. Jay Bargeron, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division. 

“The friendship and trust between our forces will enable us to accomplish any mission across the spectrum of military operations,” he said. 

Balikatan, which began in 1991, is to bring 3,800 Filipino and 5,100 U.S. troops together to train and to offer humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian work already began with the renovation of four elementary schools ahead of the training component.

This year’s Balikatan will be “the largest one to be held in the past six years,” according to the Filipino military.

Maneuvers had taken a backseat after President Rodrigo Duterte – who finishes his six-year term in office in late June, following the May 9 general election – distanced himself from Washington in favor of closer ties with China, before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Philippine president threatened to scrap a Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S., but later decided to keep it. He said he agreed in 2021 to keep the deal in gratitude for U.S. vaccine donations, and acknowledged intelligence assistance that was crucial in defeating Islamic State-linked militants who had seized the southern city of Marawi in 2017.

In addition, Duterte failed to challenge China after an international arbitration court nullified its expansive claims in the South China Sea region and instead sought to appease Beijing in exchange for millions of dollars in economic aid. The ruling came just weeks after Duterte took office in 2016.

That changed beginning in March 2021 after about 220 Chinese ships were spotted around the Spratly Islands, leading Manila to file a series of protests against Beijing over its presence within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Earlier this month, the Department of Foreign Affairs summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to explain what it called an “illegal” incursion by a Chinese navy reconnaissance ship in the Sulu Sea.

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Araceli Alarcon, a 2016 Balikatan participant, pays respects to those whose names are engraved on the Philippine Wall of Heroes Memorial at the Capas National Shrine, April 11, 2016. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

The first Balikatan exercise conducted during the Duterte administration in 2017 involved 5,400 troops on both sides while the Balikatan 2018 and Balikatan 2019 involved 8,000 and 7,600 troops, respectively. The pandemic forced the 2020 exercise to be canceled and limited the number of participants to less than 1,000 in 2021. 

The largest exercise occurred in 2015 when 5,000 Philippine troops welcomed 6,500 U.S. counterparts. 

Maj. Gen. Charlton Sean Gaerlan, the exercise director on the Philippine side, said Balikatan “is a testament to the strength of the Philippines and United States.” 

“The experience gained in the exercise complements our security cooperation endeavors and will help to enhance existing mutual security efforts,” Gaerlan said.

The exercise includes a command post or tabletop exercise that tests the AFP and U.S. forces’ ability to plan, command and communicate with each other in a simulated environment. This training is envisioned to bolster the “defensive capabilities of the alliance,” both sides said. 


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