MORE than 5,000 Filipino and American soldiers will participate in this year’s Balikatan exercises that kicked off Monday in Camp Aguinaldo.
Lt. Annaleah Cazcarro, co-director of the Combined Joint Information Bureau said 3,000 Filipino soldiers and 2,500 US troops will join the military exercises which Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said were necessary to deal with the challenge of “aggressive” neighbors intent on “changing the status quo.”
He did not mention China directly, but Beijing has been robust in its efforts to assert territorial claims over most of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), putting a strain on its relationships with neighboring countries.
“In recent years tensions in the Asia-Pacific region have increased due to extensive and expansive maritime and territorial claims undermining the rule of law,” del Rosario said at the opening ceremony.
“Aggressive patterns of behavior aimed at changing the status quo threaten peace and stability in the region.”
He added that the military exercise, with its focus on “maritime capability”, boosted the Philippines’ ability to “address these challenges”.
Dozens of Australian troops, including Special Forces, were invited this year as the exercises begin to expand to eventually include other key allies in the region.
Looking to raise its regional defense platform, Australia will be bringing P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft to the drills to help boost Manila’s “maritime domain awareness,” said Wing Commander Nicholas Pratt of the Royal Australian Air Force.
He said the aircraft will be operating out of the western Philippine island of Palawan, fronting the disputed waters.
The exercises will be held in Clark Air Base, Subic Naval Base, Crow Valley in Camp O’Donnel in Tarlac, and Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija.
Prior to the formal opening of the annual military exercises, Filipino and US troops conducted community infrastructure projects in Legazpi City and Albay as part of Balikatan’s human civic assistance to improve and revitalize the interoperability of the Philippines and U.S. militaries through the conduct of disaster rehabilitation and rural development projects.
Also present at the launching on Monday were Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg, and AFP chief Emmanuel Bautista.
Maj. Gen. Emeraldo Magnaye, Philippines Exercise Director for Balikatan 2014, and Col. John A. Rutherford unfurled the Balikatan flag to mark the official start of the annual bilateral exercises.