UNITED States Embassy Charge d’Affaires Robert Ewing (middle) is flanked by (from left) Philippine Balikatan exercise director Major General Marvin Licudine, military chief General Romeo S. Brawner, Jr., military deputy chief Major General Noel D. Beleran and US Balikatan exercise director Lieutenant General William Jurney at the opening of the annual joint Philippine-US military exercises at Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on Monday.

NEARLY 17,000 Filipino and American troops kicked off their three-week war games in the Philippines on Monday, including maritime drills in the South China Sea where Manila and Beijing have sparred over their sea dispute.

“Exercises in those locations operate based on international order and international law and well within your sovereign rights and responsibilities,” US Lieutenant General William Jurney, Balikatan exercise director, told a news briefing. “We’re conducting exercises that are normal.”

The military exercises called Balikatan or shoulder to shoulder in Filipino will be mostly concentrated in northern Philippines and its west coast, near the potential flash points of the South China Sea and Taiwan, which China con-siders a renegade province.

France and Australia, which have boosted defense ties with the Philippines in the face of China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, will join the maritime exercises to be conducted for the first time outside Philippine territorial waters.

The annual drills, which will run until May 10, come amid an escalating diplomatic row and maritime encounters between the Philippines and China, which continues to block resupply missions at Second Thomas Shoal, where Manila grounded a World War II-era ship in 1999 to assert its sovereignty.

The exercises are in line with the treaty allies’ “unwavering commitment to democracy and respect for international law in our pursuit of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific Region,” said Philippine military chief Romeo S. Brawner, Jr., who opened the drills at a ceremony.

He cited the need for both countries to boost maritime cooperation amid complex challenges that he said threaten regional peace and security. “We are fully committed to upholding a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

“Balikatan represents more than just a showcase of military readiness,” US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires Y. Robert Ewing said at the opening ceremony. “It embodies the deep-rooted spirit of collaboration and partnership that has defined the enduring alliance between the United States and the Philippines for decades.”

He said the military drills and the many other smaller military engagements are central to achieving both nations’ commitment to greater interoperability between their armed forces. “To everyone who will participate in Bali-katan, service member and civilian, know that your efforts here are advancing our shared goal of ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Beijing’s increasing pressure in the South China Sea has alarmed Manila, rival claimants to disputed maritime territory, and other states operating there, including the United States which has reaffirmed its commitment to de-fend the Philippines against armed aggression in the waterway.

China claims most of the South China Sea, which is a conduit for more than $3 trillion of annual ship-borne commerce. Beijing has criticized the joint drills, saying they aggravate tensions and undermine regional stability.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled in 2016 that China’s expansive claims to the sea had no basis under international law. China rejects the ruling and has built military facilities on disputed atolls to back up its claims.


During joint exercises, US troops and their Philippine counterparts will simulate retaking enemy-occupied islands in the northernmost islands of the country close to Taiwan, and in western Palawan province facing the South China Sea.

The drills, which the Philippines said were not targeted against any country, will involve 16,700 troops from both sides, slightly less than last year’s 17,600, which were the largest Balikatan exercises since these started in 1991.

“While we remain vigilant in the face of regional challenges, the exercise is not explicitly tied to any particular country’s actions,” Philippine military spokesman Colonel Francel Margareth Padilla said on Sunday.

Hosting combat training exercises and maritime drills in the South China Sea could escalate tensions, Party-list Rep. Arlene D. Brosas said.

“The pre-positioning of missiles near contested waters and other strategic maneuvers demonstrate a calculated effort to assert dominance and provoke conflict in the region,” she said in a statement. —

She said the US was using the Philippines as a “pawn” in waging a war against China.

Bagong Alyansang Makabayan said the Balikatan exercises reek of the “subservient foreign policy” of the Marcos administration.

“Balikatan has nothing to show in modernizing our defense forces and enhancing local capabilities to secure our territories,” Bayan Secretary-General Raymond Palatino said in a statement. “It also didn’t prevent China’s aggres-sion in the West Philippine Sea.”

Human rights group Karapatan urged the Marcos government to stop the annual war games, saying it could worsen tensions with China. “The heavy presence of American military troops and armaments in the country already makes the Philippines a potential target of military attacks by China,” it said in a statement.

Joshua Bernard B. Espeña, vice-president at the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation, dismissed fears of escalation because of Balikatan, noting that the drills would let Filipino soldiers practice with modern combat systems.

The Philippines is not a pawn, he said in a Facebook Messenger chat, adding that the country could pursue strategic interests to boost its defense capabilities. “These alliances are meant to secure the country’s core interests — enhance defense capabilities to close gaps in the archipelago for optimizing conditions for exploiting maritime resources for sustainable development goals.” — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Kenneth Christiane L. Basilio and John Victor D. Ordoñez with Reuters