THE Philippines and United States formally launched their 12-day Balikatan war games on Monday, May 8.
In its opening ceremony, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim underscored Balikatan as an “important military exercise” that has become a “meaningful embodiment of strong partnership” between the two countries.
Balikatan, which literally means “shoulder to shoulder,” is considered the biggest military joint activity bound by the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the U.S.
“Balikatan is always a very important exercise. It is a very special and meaningful embodiment of our robust bilateral relationship and reflects not only our strong military partnership but also the deep friendship between our two peoples, mutually beneficial economic ties and very importantly our shared history and shared interest,” Kim said.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed office in June last year, previously threatened to scrap military games with the U.S. amid his administration’s pivot to China and Russia.
While Duterte has been persuaded to continue joint exercises, adjustments, however were made upon his orders.
This year’s Balikatan, the first bilateral exercise under the Duterte administration, involves only 2,600 American soldiers and 2,800 of their Filipino counterparts—which is less than half the total of 12,000 participants in 2015.
The two militaries will also focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) and fighting terrorism instead of the usual boosting of maritime defense capabilities, particularly in South China.
Despite the scaled down Balikatan exercise, both its U.S. and Philippine directors expressed the mutual importance of the military exchange and are still expecting a “very productive” outcome this year.
“We’re looking forward to a very productive 33rd Balikatan Exercises and this year’s themes were discussed and will touch on the humanitarian and disaster relief and counterterrorism. And so we are looking forward to a great couple of weeks,” Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, U.S. co-director for Balikatan.
Nicholson also remarked that working with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is a privilege for U.S. troops.
“So whether it’s during other exercises, whether it’s Balikatan, whether it’s smaller individual efforts, when we get a chance to train with the AFP that’s great for us’” Nicholson said.
AFP chief General Eduardo Año also underscored the mutual benefits of the exercises, citing the two countries’ long history of cooperation.
“Our armed forces have continuously shared ordeals that have strengthened our bond. It is an avenue for us to enhance cooperation between our military forces and an opportunity to test and validate our forces’ inter-operability,” Año said.
While this year’s Balikatan just commenced, Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao, Philippine co-director for the Balikatan, revealed that plans for next year’s drills are already being discussed.
“The planning exercise for Balikatan ’18 is already being discussed,” Lactao said, without further elaboration.
Lactao also expressed confidence that this year’s Balikatan would be “a very successful exercise.” (AJPress)