Philippines Hosts US for Scaled-Down Joint Military Drills

J.C. Gotinga
Philippines Hosts US for Scaled-Down Joint Military Drills Philippine military exercise director Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo (center), and U.S. Marine Col. Aaron Brunk unfurl the 36th Balikatan exercise flag during the opening ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo in Metro Manila, April 12, 2021.
Armed Forces of the Philippines handout via AFP

The Philippines and long-time defense ally the United States kicked off an annual joint military exercise on Monday amid a recent surge in tensions in the South China Sea triggered by China’s refusal to leave waters within Manila’s internationally recognized territory. 

The military top brass opened this year’s two-week Balikatan (“shoulder-to-shoulder”) exercises attended by 225 American soldiers and their 736 Filipino counterparts in low-key ceremonies at the military’s headquarters. The numbers are down from previous exercises involving thousands of troops from both sides. The event was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Through the exchanges of ideas and expertise, we hope to maximize the benefit to both our armed forces, so that we could further develop effective strategies in dealing not only against insurgents or terrorist groups, but also in addressing non-traditional security challenges persisting in the region,” military chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said. 

He noted that both countries are bound by a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, an alliance that binds them to come to each other’s aid “to promote cooperation and regional security.”

Sobejana said he was encouraged to see that the “mutual commitment” with the U.S. has grown stronger over time. 

“Moreso, that the country has been faced with various security challenges, the strong partnership with our allies and other like-minded countries truly enabled our respective military organizations to improve on capabilities for joint and combined operations,” Sobejana said.

He did not mention the current diplomatic squabble triggered by China’s deployment of dozens of ships near a boomerang-shaped territory in the South China Sea within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). China has said the ships were fishing boats – but Manila has been filing daily protests with the Chinese embassy since last week. 

Balikatan will focus on territorial defense and counterterrorism, humanitarian and civic action and joint pandemic response operations, officials said. 

Most field exercises have been replaced with activities that would not require face-to-face engagement, including a bilateral staff exercise, close air support training, subject matter exchanges, maritime security training and humanitarian and civic assistance activities. 

A live fire exercise will be conducted “on the ground,” however. 

Members of both militaries are building classrooms in two Philippine provinces as part of the humanitarian and civic assistance exercises. Those classrooms are to be completed and unveiled by April 23, the last day of the exercises, the military said. 

US praise

“The United States is proud to participate in the Balikatan exercise, and we thank the Armed Forces of the Philippines for hosting U.S. troops in ways that maintain the health and safety of both our militaries,” said John Law, Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Manila. 

“Joint exercises like Balikatan demonstrate our shared commitment to peace and stability, and the adaptability of U.S. and Philippine forces. The United States will continue to seek ways, even during the pandemic, to strengthen our security cooperation,” Law said. 

Balikatan, which began in 1991, is the largest annual exercise involving Philippine and U.S. forces and has included observers from other militaries in the region, including from Japan and Australia. This year, the exercise involves only the two countries.

A Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between Manila and Washington, signed in 1998, provides legal cover for the American soldiers participating in the drills. 

President Rodrigo Duterte had threatened to scrap it over the U.S. government’s decision to bar his former police general – the chief enforcer of his war on drugs that has led to thousands of deaths – from traveling there. He later recanted, and Filipino officials said the country needed the U.S. to assist in its coastal territorial defense. 

Last year, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana warned that terminating the VFA could spell the end of the Balikatan and other regular activities between Filipino and American forces.

On Sunday, Lorenzana participated in a phone call with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who pushed for the retention of the VFA, according to Manila’s defense office.

“Secretary Austin reiterated the importance of the VFA and hopes that it would be continued. Secretary Lorenzana committed to discuss the matter with the president as the final approval lies with him,” the defense office said. 

Tensions in the South China Sea 

Also Monday, Philippine and U.S. military officials began talks about the presence of Chinese ships in the South China Sea, particularly within the Philippine EEZ. 

Sobejana and Col. Stephen Ma of the U.S. Joint Military Assistance Group in Manila had a “fruitful engagement” after the Balikatan opening ceremony, according to military spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo. 

“The discussions centered on how the Philippine and the United States armed forces can manage and respond to the situation in the Philippine EEZ. They agreed to continue to have subsequent meetings,” Arevalo said. 

Since late March, Manila has complained of the presence of about 200 Chinese ships, including some suspected of being manned by militia, at Whitsun Reef within the Philippine EEZ. Manila has repeatedly demanded that the ships leave the area. 

Beijing refused to do so, and claimed the ships were fishing boats taking shelter from bad weather. It also insisted that Whitsun Reef is part of China’s territory, along with most of the South China Sea. 

Recently, Manila said the ships at Whitsun Reef were down to 44, but others were scattered among different reefs and islets in the Philippine EEZ. 

On Sunday, Sobejana said in a radio interview that patrols spotted only 28 Chinese ships remaining in different parts of the Philippine EEZ as of Saturday night: six coast guard ships, 20 fishing boats, and two “militia.”

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own, but five other Asian governments – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have territorial claims. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

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