Philippines, US to hold largest joint drills amid tensions with China

Basilio Sepe and Jeoffrey Maitem
Philippines, US to hold largest joint drills amid tensions with China Philippine and U.S. troops participate in amphibious landing drills during a joint military exercise at a naval station in Zambales province, Philippines, Oct. 7, 2022.
Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

The Philippines and the United States will participate in their largest-ever joint military drills next month amid rising regional tensions with China, a military spokesman said Tuesday.

More than 17,000 troops will participate in the drills from April 11 to 28, during which the allies will for the first time conduct live-fire exercises at sea, said Col. Michael Logico, the Filipino spokesman for the drills.

“There will be 17,600 participants on our side and on the side of the U.S. ... This is officially the largest Balikatan exercise,” Logico told reporters. Balikatan means “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Tagalog.

About 12,000 U.S. military personnel will participate in the 38th version of Balikatan while most of the others will be Philippine troops.

This will be the first annual exercise under the government of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., which in February granted U.S. troops expanded access to military sites as regional tensions rise over the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

The exercises also come on the heels of China’s growing assertiveness in the disputed South China region.

Last month, Manila filed a diplomatic protest with Beijing after the China Coast Guard trained a military-grade laser on a Philippine Coast Guard ship near the Philippine-occupied Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).

Logico said the beefed-up exercises were not a direct response to the incident but were only to “show that we are combat ready.” 

“All I can say is that every country has the absolute and inalienable right to exercise within our territory,” Logico said. “We have an absolute, inalienable right to defend our territory. That's all I can say.”

China and the Philippines have overlapping claims in the South China Sea. Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have their own claims that counter China’s.

Last month, a U.S. Army official told the Associated Press news agency that Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea was “absolutely” on participants’ minds when they train.

On Sunday, Beijing accused Washington of stirring up trouble in the region and driving a wedge between China and the Philippines.

The Chinese embassy in Manila said that contrary to accusations by the Philippines, U.S. and other countries, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea has not been impeded.

It also said that granting the U.S. greater access to Philippine military bases would drag the Southeast Asian nation into “geopolitical strife,” claiming the move is part of a plot to contain its growing regional influence.

US weapons

This year, 111 troops from the Australian Defense Force will be participating in the exercise, particularly in small land-based special operations training, Balikatan spokesman Logico said.

Japan, another country that has a territorial quarrel with China, will be sending observers to the event, he said.

Exercises will be held at Fort Magsaysay in northern Nueva Ecija province; in Casiguran town in Aurora province; and in the provinces of Palawan and Antique.

 The U.S. is scheduled to bring a Patriot missile system and high mobility artillery rocket systems, or HIMARs, Logico said, adding it is to bring ships and aircraft without giving specific details.

The Philippine military, meanwhile, will feature two frigates from the navy, FA-50 jets from the air force, and newly acquired artillery from the army. 

The previous largest Balikatan in 2015 included 6,500 U.S. and 5,000 Philippine troops. The 2022 exercises involved 8,900 personnel, including 5,100 Americans.


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