US, Philippines seek to return to full military drills in 2022

US and Philippine marines providing security during an amphibious exercise as part of Exercise Balikatan on May 9, 2018. PHOTO: US INDO-PACIFIC COMMAND/FACEBOOK

MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - The US and the Philippines are planning to return to full-scale military drills in 2022 after two years and will invite Australia and the UK as observers, in another sign of the Biden administration's push to deepen ties in the Indo-Pacific and counter China's assertiveness.

America wants "to increase the complexity and scope" of its military exercises with the Philippines, and plans to invite new partners to join the drills, Admiral John Aquilino, the US Indo-Pacific Command chief, said at a briefing in Manila.

The UK, Australia and Japan are among the "like-minded" countries that could rejoin the drills as observers, Philippine military chief Jose Faustino said at the same briefing.

The ramp-up in military engagement comes after the US, UK and Australia unveiled a security partnership last month that allows Canberra to acquire nuclear-powered submarine technology.

While some nations in South-east Asia were concerned that the pact would drive a regional arms race, the Philippines was broadly supportive of the move but said that Manila wanted good defence relations with all countries in the Indo-Pacific.

Earlier in his term, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte wanted to end military exercises with the US, as he sought to build ties with China.

The drills were cancelled in 2020 and scaled down this year due to the pandemic. In recent months, however, the Philippines has been moving back towards its long-time alliance with the US, amid tensions with Beijing over the South China Sea.

Adm Aquilino also repeated America's commitment that it will stand with the Philippines against threats.

The US has also allocated US$12.5 million (S$16.87 million) to implement a deal that allows American projects in Philippine military bases, he said.

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