The Philippines and its longtime US defense ally kicked off their annual joint exercises on Monday amid rising tensions in the South China Sea recently over China’s refusal to leave waters in internationally publicized territory. receipt by Manila.
The army’s top teammates have inaugurated the two-week Balikatan (“shoulder to shoulder”) drills this year with 225 US troops and their 736 Filipino counterparts in solemn ceremonies at military headquarters. The number has decreased compared to previous exercises with thousands of soldiers on both sides. This event was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Through an exchange of opinions and expertise, we hope to maximize the benefits of our armed forces, so that we can develop more effective strategies for Coping not only with rebels or terrorist groups, but also in tackling non-traditional security challenges remains the military leader, General Cirilito Sobejana said.
He noted that both countries were bound by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, an alliance that bound them to mutual assistance “to promote regional security and cooperation.”
Sobejana said he was encouraged to see that his “shared commitment” with the United States grew stronger over time.
“In addition, the country has faced various security challenges, strong partnerships with our allies and other like-minded nations have indeed allowed for military organizations. Our correspondence improves the ability for joint and combined actions, ”says Sobejana.
He did not mention the current diplomatic controversy caused by China deploying dozens of ships near boomerang-shaped territory in the South China Sea within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China says the ships are fishing boats – but Manila has filed daily protests with the Chinese Embassy since last week.
Balikatan will focus on territorial protection and counterterrorism, humanitarian and civic action, and joint actions to respond to the pandemic, officials said.
Most field drills have been replaced by non-face-to-face operations, including bilateral drills, air support training, exchange of topics, maritime security training and civic and humanitarian assistance activities.
However, a live-fire drills will be conducted “on the ground”.
Members of both militaries are building classes in two Philippine provinces as part of civic and humanitarian assistance drills. These classrooms will be completed and inaugurated on April 23, the last day of the exercise, the military said.
Praise the United States
John Law, Chargé d’Affaires of the Organization of the US Embassy in Manila.
“Joint drills like Balikatan demonstrate our shared commitment to peace and stability, as well as the adaptability of US and Philippine forces. The United States will continue to find ways, even during a pandemic, to strengthen our security cooperation, ”Law said.
Balikatan, which began in 1991, is the largest annual exercise involving Philippine and US forces and includes observers from other militaries in the region, including from Japan and Australia. This year, the exercise only involved two countries.
The Force of Visit Agreement (VFA) between Manila and Washington, signed in 1998, provides legal cover for American soldiers participating in the exercise.
President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to cancel the US government’s decision to ban his former police general – the chief enforcer in the war on drugs that has resulted in thousands of deaths – from traveling there. He then withdrew and Philippine officials said the country needed the US assistance in protecting its coastal territory.
Last year, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana warned that the end of the VFA could mark the end of Balikatan and other regular activities between Philippine and US forces.
On Sunday, Lorenzana took part in a phone call with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who has been pushing for the maintenance of the VFA, according to Manila’s defense office.
“Secretary Austin reiterated the importance of the VFA and hopes that it will continue. Minister Lorenzana pledged to discuss the matter with the president because the final approval belongs to him, ”said the defense office.
Tensions in the South China Sea
Also on Monday, Philippine and US military officials began to discuss the presence of Chinese ships in the South China Sea, particularly in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Sobejana and Colonel Stephen Ma of the US Joint Military Support Group in Manila had a “fruitful participation” after the Balikatan opening ceremony, according to military spokesman Major General Edgard Arevalo.
“Discussions focus on how the armed forces of the Philippines and the United States can manage and respond to the situation in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. They agreed to have follow-up meetings, ”Arevalo said.
Since the end of March, Manila has complained about the presence of about 200 Chinese ships, some of which are suspected of being operated by militias, at Whitsun Reef in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Manila has repeatedly asked ships to leave the area.
Beijing refuses to do so and claims the ships are fishing boats taking refuge in bad weather. It also emphasizes that Whitsun Reef is part of China’s territory, along with most of the South China Sea.
Recently, Manila reported that the number of ships at Whitsun Reef dropped to 44, but others were scattered among the various reefs and islets in the Philippines’ EEZ.
On Sunday, Sobejana said in a radio interview that patrol forces spotted only 28 remaining Chinese ships in different parts of the Philippine EEZ on Saturday night: Friday Coast Guard ships, 20 fishing boats and two “militia”.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, but five other Asian governments – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have territorial claims. While Indonesia does not consider itself a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to the maritime zones that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
Reported by BenarNews, an online news service affiliated with RFA.