FILIPINO and American Marines will conduct beach landing exercises on Tuesday as the biggest war exercises in 15 years between the two allied countries get underway.
This year’s Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder), to be participated in by about 12,000 troops, is conducted amid heightened tensions sparked by China’s reclamation works in disputed areas in the South China Sea.
The beach landings will be launched from a naval base facing the West Philippine Sea (the Philippine-claimed areas in the South China Sea) just 220 kilometers from Scarborough Shoal, which China has controlled since 2012.
US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg on Monday reiterated Washington’s commitment to help the Philippines build up its capacity to defend itself from external threats as both countries launched their biggest war exercises since 2000.
The Philippines and the United States signed the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951 committing each to come to the other’ aid if threatened by external aggression.
The 2015 Balikatan exercises will be conducted for 10 days.
“I am sure that these Balikatan exercises will . . . likewise zero in on enhancing our combined capacity to undertake humanitarian assistance and disaster response as well as in dealing with maritime security challenges,” Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said.
In efforts to deter China, the militarily weak Philippines has encouraged long-time ally the United States to increase its presence on Philippine soil and coastal waters through expanded and more frequent war games.
This dovetails with US plans to rebuild its military presence in the Philippines, a former colony where it had naval and air bases until the early 1990s.
“We make no pretense that we are helping the Philippines as it builds a minimum credible defense and pretext its maritime security,” US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg said in his speech.
“To be clear, the US is committed to its alliances and in the case of the Philippines, our oldest in the region, that commitment is, as President Obama has said, is ironclad. At the same time, the US will always defend the important principles of freedom of navigation in the air and the sea and the peaceful resolution of disputes through legal, diplomatic and peaceful means,” he added.
The term “freedom of navigation” is loaded in the context of the South China Sea, which hosts roughly 40 percent of all the world’s shipping trade.
The United States has repeatedly expressed concern about the territorial rivalries threatening “freedom of navigation,” which angers China as it insists it will always allow ships to sail freely.
China also believes that US complaints on the issue are a way for the superpower, which has no territorial claims in the sea, to become involved in the power struggle.
While observers say the timing and extent of the exercises were meant to warn China to temper its aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea, both Manila and Washington have been categorical in denying this.
“Balikatan is about our alliance and about or friendships in the region…Working shoulder-to-shoulder as partners, friends and allies. It’s about preparing to confront emerging challenges across the Asia-Pacific region. So let me just say that what we do in Balikatan and we’ve said it many times are not aimed at any country or any group of countries,” Goldberg said.