Balikatan vs China? Drills not aimed at any country, says U.S.

MANILA, Philippines – After US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave an assurance that his country would defend the Philippines in case of any armed attack in the South China Sea, will the joint exercises of the two countries be modified just in case?

No, according to United States Balikatan Exercise Director Brigadier General Chris McPhillips.

"While each year we change Balikatan a little bit, like the general said, to introduce new capabilities and training, Balikatan is not aimed at any other nation in the region," McPhillips said in the joint exercises' opening press conference on Monday, April 1, after being asked whether the exercises have been modified given Pompeo's recent statement.

The 35th Balikatan exercises of the Philippine and US militaries opened on Monday, with renewed promises for cooperation amid increasing tensions in the region.

The Balikatan includes live-fire drills and amphibious landing exercises in Tarlac and Zambales provinces in the Philippines' Luzon island region.

HAPPENING NOW: Balikatan 2019 opening press briefing led by PH Exercise Director LtGen Gilbert Gapay and US Exercise Director BGen Chris McPhillips. @rapplerdotcom pic.twitter.com/HcpMOkzoH8 — Rambo Talabong (@rambotalabong) April 1, 2019

 

The increasingly complex security scenarios have led Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to call for the review of the longtime allies' 68-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty, which for him remains "vague."

On March 1, the Philippines got verbal clarification on the agreement from Pompeo, who said that "any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations."

This has not been translated to the joint exercises, McPhillips said, because the purpose of the exercises is not to battle any country, but to develop cooperation among Filipino, American, and Australian soldiers.

The 2019 Balikatan is one of the biggest in recent years, with 4,000 Filipino, 3,500 American, and 50 Australian soldiers banding together until April 12, when the exercises conclude.

Philippine Balikatan Exercise Director Lieutenant General Gilbert Gapay added that Balikatan training scenarios are "generic in nature."

"This year, we focus on global terrorism, and of course for our part is territorial defense, and of course, disaster response, so those are the 3 major capabilities which we would like to enhance in this Balikatan exercise, so everything is a generic scenario," Gapay said. – Rappler.com

Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers security, crime, and the city of Manila for Rappler. He was chosen as a Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

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