THE United States and the Philippines began the annual “Balikatan” exercises on Monday, April 4, after China issued a warning against “outside interference” in relation to the ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
Over 8,000 US and Filipino troops, including 80 Australian forces, will participate in the 11-day war games dubbed as “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder), from April 4 to 15. The military drills will involve several intense exercises including simulation events, an amphibious landing and strengthening the combat skills of the soldiers.
“The Balikatan exercise is designed not to address a particular concern but the whole lump in the spectrum of warfare,” Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, Philippine military exercise director, said in a news conference.
China’s state media, Xinhua, recently reported about the Chinese government warning outsiders entering the disputed islands in the South China Sea, which the country is claiming.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter is scheduled to visit the Philippines next week to observe the annual Balikatan exercises and monitor several US navy ships. He will be the first top US defense official to observe the war games after the two allies started holding joint military exercises. Carter’s visit concurs with the implementation of a new military agreement between the two countries, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and will be highlighting this year’s Balikatan.
“Our alliance is strong. The United States is committed to this relationship and these are not empty words…. peace in Southeast Asia depends on our cooperation,” Lieutenant-General John Toolan, commander of US Marine Corps forces in the Pacific told Philippine media. He also added that the exercises would help the allies improve maritime security and maintain regional stability.
The ongoing territorial dispute includes several islands in the South China Sea namely the Paracels Islands, the Pratas Islands, Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the waters, in which the Philippines has sought international arbitration on the disputed islands.
Major General Rodolfo Santiago, assistant exercise director, however, said that the drills were designed to practice “generic scenario[s]” and were not targeted toward any specific country, in the midst of China’s aggression in the South China Sea.