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US Cancels Balikatan Exercises over COVID-19 Fears; Philippine Military Chief Tests Positive

Jojo Rinoza and Dennis Jay Santos
Manila and Davao, Philippines
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A helicopter lands on the USS Wasp during the annual Balikatan joint training exercise in the western Philippine province of Zambales, April 11, 2019.
A helicopter lands on the USS Wasp during the annual Balikatan joint training exercise in the western Philippine province of Zambales, April 11, 2019.
Jay Rey/BenarNews

The United States has called off joint exercises in the Philippines that would involve thousands of soldiers because of concerns around the coronavirus pandemic, an American admiral announced Friday, as Manila’s top general said he had tested positive for COVID-19.

The Balikatan (“Shoulder to shoulder”) exercises were scheduled to run from May 4-15 in the Philippines, with Australian forces also participating. Some 10,000 Americans, Filipinos and Australian troops had been expected to attend.

“In light of the extraordinary circumstance surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and in the best interest of the health and safety of both countries’ forces, it is prudent to cancel Balikatan 2020,” Adm. Phil Davidson, chief of the Hawaii-based U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said in a statement.

“We remain deeply committed to our long-standing alliance and friendship,” he said.

The announcement came the same day that Gen. Felimon Santos, commander of the Philippine armed forces, confirmed that tests showed he was infected for the pneumonia-like disease, and the country’s president was preparing to be placed under quarantine against the virus. COVID-19 has infected almost 559,000 people and killed more than 25,300 others worldwide, according to disease experts at Johns Hopkins University.

“He is well and in good condition. He will be in his military quarters where he will continue the discharge of his duties and responsibilities,” the Philippine military said in a statement about its top commander.

The military drill has been credited for transferring vital know-how among its participants, and in transferring knowledge that allowed Filipino forces to defeat Islamic State-linked militants in the southern Philippines three years ago.

But the pandemic could have driven the last nail into the coffin of future bilateral exercises.

In February, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement, a bilateral pact that allows U.S. troops to deploy in the Philippines.

Duterte gave the order after the U.S. State Department revoked a visa for entry into the United States that it had issued for Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, the former Philippine national police chief accused of human rights violations related to Duterte’s deadly drug war.

Defense officials and diplomats from both sides scrambled to salvage the longtime military alliance and mend the rift, but Duterte early this month said his mind was set.

Davidson said Washington remained committed to its alliance with Manila. Priorities had now shifted, he said, with uniformed personnel wanting to ensure the safety of their loved ones first and “safeguarding and maintaining our ability to defend the nation and its interests.”

The United States, which recently ramped up testing for the virus, has more than 86,000 confirmed cases, while the Philippines has reported 803. On Friday, the Philippine health department confirmed nine new fatalities from COVID-19, bringing the nationwide death toll to 54.

President to be quarantined

Santos has gone under quarantine and Vice Adm. Gaudencio Collado, the vice chief of staff, has been tasked to take his post, the Philippine military’s statement said.

The military disclosed the top general’s illness in order “to inform those [that Santos] had close physical contact with” about his condition, and urged them to undergo testing and isolate themselves at once, the statement said.

Among them was Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was with the general on Monday when they appeared at the presidential palace in Manila, where they presumably interacted with Duterte.

The palace did not issue a statement about Duterte’s condition, but it is widely known that the sickly leader, who turns 75 on Saturday, was advised to go into quarantine. His entire presidential security guard was also restricted from leaving their quarters for two weeks, officials said.

Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, said the president had been advised to go into quarantine.

“He will continue with his work while on quarantine,” he said, adding that the Philippine leader would “stay home” on Saturday.

Duterte’s former chief aide, and now Sen. Christopher Go, has placed himself into quarantine after a fellow politician with whom he had contact tested positive for the disease.

Apart from the military chief, three senators have already tested for COVID-19, including one who was criticized for potentially infecting health workers by accompanying his pregnant wife to the Makati Medical Center, one of the country’s most-advanced hospitals.

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