MANILA, Philippines — Filipino and American forces yesterday launched their largest war exercises in decades aimed at improving combat readiness by testing the two countries’ capabilities in responding to possible threats.
The annual drills by the longtime treaty allies called Balikatan – Filipino for “shoulder-to-shoulder” – will run until April 28 and involve more than 17,600 military personnel. The drills will be highlighted by a ship-sinking rocket barrage in the South China Sea and near the Taiwan Strait, where the United States has repeatedly warned China over its increasingly aggressive actions.
It will be the latest display of American firepower in Asia, as the Biden administration strengthens an arc of alliances to better counter China, including in a possible confrontation over Taiwan, an island democracy that Beijing claims as part of its territory.
That dovetails with efforts by the Philippines under President Marcos to defend its territorial interests in the South China Sea by boosting joint military exercises with the US and allowing rotating batches of American forces to stay in additional Philippine military camps under a 2014 defense pact.
“The relationships that we have, that we build into these exercises, will make us faster to respond to conflict, crisis, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” US Exercise Director Marine Maj. Gen. Eric Austin said.
Austin added that he is “honored to experience, to support, to celebrate the long-standing friendship, partnership and alliance between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States.”
“Our nations and our military forces share an unbreakable bond built through decades of working shoulder-to-shoulder promoting peace and stability,” he said.
Philippine Exercise Director Major General Marvin Licudine said Balikatan 2023 will indeed be the largest ever, with events held in the Northern Luzon Command (NOLCOM), Western Command (WESCOM) and the Visayas Command (VISCOM) joint areas of operations.
And for the first time, he stressed that this year’s events will be highlighted by a joint littoral live fire exercise in Zambales, among others.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Andres Centino said Balikatan 2023 will be another defining moment, “the magnitude of this year’s exercise is a testament to the deepening alliance between and among our countries.”
About 12,200 US military personnel, 5,400 Filipino forces and 111 Australian counterparts are taking part in the exercises, the largest since Balikatan started three decades ago. The drills will showcase US warships, fighter jets as well as Patriot missiles, HIMARS rocket launchers and anti-tank Javelins, according to US and Philippine military officials.
In a live-fire drill the allies will stage for the first time, US and Filipino forces will sink a target ship in the territorial waters off Zambales on April 26, in a coordinated inland and coastal artillery bombardment and airstrike, Balikatan 2023 spokesman Col. Michael Logico told reporters.
“We have to fire at a target that is closer to what we would expect in an actual threat, which is an intrusion coming from an adversary by sea,” Logico told reporters. “We are demonstrating that we are combat ready.”
Asked if Marcos raised any concern that Beijing may be antagonized by the rocket-firing near the busy waterway that China considers its territory, Logico said that did not come up when he briefed the President about the event. Marcos wants to witness the live-fire drill, he said.
In western Palawan, which faces the South China Sea, the exercises will involve retaking an island captured by enemy forces, Logico said.
Such field scenarios will “test the allies’ capabilities in combined arms live-fire, information and intelligence sharing, communications between maneuver units, logistics operations, amphibious operations,” the US embassy in Manila said.
Top military officials from both nations and US Chargé d’Affaires Heather Variava said events would once again bring together Filipino and American soldiers in shoulder-to-shoulder activities that reflect how the Philippines and the US are friends, partners and allies.
Variava, representing US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson, said the Philippines is the oldest treaty ally of the US for over seven decades, strengthened and sustained by the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
“This year’s Balikatan will be the biggest ever – an indication of the growth of our alliance and how it continues to evolve to meet our shared goals,” she said.
In a sign of deepening defense cooperation, the Philippine foreign and defense secretaries will meet their American counterparts in Washington on Tuesday to discuss the American military presence and proposed joint naval patrols, officials said.
Washington and Beijing have been on a collision course over the long-seething territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines and four other governments, and Beijing’s goal of annexing Taiwan, by force if necessary.
China last week warned against the intensifying US military deployment to the region. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a regular news briefing in Beijing that it “would only lead to more tensions and less peace and stability in the region.”
The Balikatan exercises opened in the Philippines a day after China concluded three days of combat drills that simulated sealing off Taiwan.
Militant youth group Anakbayan has expressed its opposition to the conduct of the Balikatan exercises which started yesterday.
Anakbayan chairperson Jeann Miranda said the military drills and the EDCA have only escalated tensions between the United States and China, putting the Philippines at risk of being stuck in the conflict between the two powerful nations.
The group also expressed concern over the possible damage of the military exercises on communities, noting that toxic waste from weapons and equipment will damage not only vulnerable communities but also the environment.
Miranda also disputed the claim of President Marcos that the sites will not be used for offensive purposes, accusing Marcos of turning a blind eye to the US goal of using the country as a staging ground for their weapons and equipment. – Emmanuel Tupas
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