The Philippines and the United States resumed their large-scale Balikatan military exercise after two years disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and uncertainty about continuity of joint military drills between the two allies.
The Philippines and the United States started the Balikatan exercise consisting of military drills taking place from March 28 to April 8.
The Balikatan exercise – balikatan means shoulder-to-shoulder in Tagalog, Philippine national language along with English – is an annual joint military drill between the two countries. But amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the operation in 2020 was cancelled and 2021 was restricted to only 640 Philippine and American troops.
This year is one of the largest iterations ever with the participation of 3,800 Philippine Armed Forces members and 5,100 U.S. military personnel. Training will for instance focus on maritime security, amphibious operations, and aviation operations among other exercises, according to the U.S. embassy.
This 37th Balikatan coincides with the 75th anniversary of U.S.-Philippine security cooperation. The Philippines and the U.S. have a mutual defense treaty, meaning they need to defend each other in case of agression. Moreover, the U.S. can store military equipment on several Philippine military bases.
Balikatan 2022 also shows strong cooperation between both countries as the Philippines was once thought to withdraw from military agreements. “Our alliance remains a key source of strength and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” said U.S. Maj. Gen. Jay Bargeron, 3rd Marine Division Commanding General.
In February 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte had abruptly asked to withdraw from the Visiting Forces Agreement. The Visiting Forces Agreement provides legal framework for the U.S. to hold joint military exercises and operations in the Philippines.
But after repeatedly postponing the decision, he decided to keep the agreement with the U.S. while China became more threatening in the South China Sea. The president had chosen to became closer to China as he took power in 2016 but “some things in life cannot be bargained,” Duterte said in April 2020.
China rejects an International Court Justice ruling from 2016 dismissing its historical claim of about 90 percent of the South China Sea.
Exercises will mostly take place in the northern part of the Philippines close to Taiwan and China.
But the United States said Monday that the drills are not a show of force amid the ongoing tension in the West Philippine Sea, the war in Ukraine or Chinese claims over Taiwan.
The drills will be the last of Duterte as he leaves office next June since presidents are not allowed to renew their 6-year mandate in the Philippines.
The Philippines is the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance in the Indo-Pacific region. Since 2015, they have delivered more than 57 billion Philippine pesos ($1.14 billion) worth of planes, ships, armored vehicles, small arms, and other military equipment and training to the Philippines. In the past two years, the U.S. has provided $110 million (PhP 5.65 billion) in grant assistance through the Foreign Military Financing.
Last Friday, the U.S., through the Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the Global Security Contingency Fund, donated 18 motors worth PhP 31.5 million ($630,000) to support Philippine maritime law enforcement operations. On February 10, they turned over four Cessna 172 Skylark planes to the Philippine Naval Air Force as part of a PhP 298.1 million ($5.8 million) grant under the FMF program to be used to train new naval aviators.
Earlier this year, China also donated for PhP 1 billion-worth of military equipment to the Philippines ($19 million), including bomb disposal suits and transport vehicles, of which a first batch was received in February. “This military grant from China speaks volumes on how our two nations can be civil, diplomatic and friends despite some issues on territorial claims,” Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana said.