Biggest Philippines, US war games in April to focus on maritime threats amid China tensions

Philippine and American soldiers in a joint army exercise at Fort Magsaysay, north of Manila, on March 13, 2023. Both countries will hold their largest drills in April. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - The Philippines and the United States will hold their biggest military drills in April, with their first live-fire exercises at sea and over 17,600 troops set to demonstrate their maritime defence capabilities, amid mounting tensions with Beijing over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Exercise Balikatan will be held from April 11 to 28 in key military bases and nearby areas across the Philippines, said spokesman Colonel Michael Logico. “Balikatan” means “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Tagalog.

The coastal province of Zambales and the island province of Palawan, which are close to the South China Sea, are among the areas where joint exercises will take place.

The Philippines is among the South-east Asian countries challenging Beijing’s sweeping claim over the disputed waters.

Drills will also be held for the first time in the northern province of Ilocos Norte, the political bailiwick of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and one of the areas closest to Taiwan, whose own conflict with China has been simmering these past months.

The number of participating troops in Balikatan 2023 will be more than double last year’s 8,900.

This is set to be the biggest Balikatan exercise since 2016, when Philippines-US relations cooled as former president Rodrigo Duterte sought friendlier ties with China. His successor, Mr Marcos, has since revived relations with the US to help counter tensions with Beijing.

Col Logico said this is the first time in the history of the Philippines-US war games that live fire drills at sea will be conducted. Past Balikatan exercises were usually held inside military bases, so only army and air force troops were able to join the drills.

Balikatan 2023 will highlight maritime and coastal defence, as well as maritime domain awareness.

Asked about Balikatan’s relevance amid growing tensions with China, he said: “We have the absolute, inalienable right to defend our territory, that’s all I can say.

“No, our war games are not meant to go against China, but we are here to practise, we are here to show that we are combat ready.”

Beijing’s increasing military aggression in the South China Sea has pushed the Philippines to bolster security ties with its long-time allies US, Australia and Japan – all of which will be part of this year’s Balikatan exercises.

Australia will send over 100 soldiers to join the drills, while Japan will be sending military observers.

A treaty ally of the Philippines like the US, Australia has been part of the Balikatan exercises since 2014. Japan has only been sending observers since it does not have a visiting forces deal with Manila.

The Philippines has an existing visiting forces agreement (VFA) with the US and Australia, allowing them to hold joint military exercises in the country. In February, Manila and Tokyo signed a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief deal, seen as a precursor for a potential VFA between the two countries.

The Philippines is also currently in talks with the three countries to possibly conduct joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea.

In the past months, all four countries have reiterated their support for a free and open Indo-Pacific amid China’s growing influence in the region.

The Philippines’ location makes it a crucial security and economic partner for the US, Australia and Japan should tensions flare over the South China Sea territorial claims or China-Taiwan conflict.

On Monday, the US and the Philippines kicked off annual army-to-army exercises that focus on enhancing Manila’s ability to protect and defend its territory from external threats.

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