The Philippines and the United States have ramped up the holding of joint military activities, agreeing to hold 261 instead of 258 joint exercises next year.
Armed Forces chief Eduardo Año said he and other senior officials of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) met with their US counterparts in Hawaii last week for the Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB).
They discussed the holding of additional set of exercises that will focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR), territorial defense and fighting terrorism.
The 261 activities include exchanges, exercises, command post exercises, table-top exercises, conferences, consultations, HADR, and building schools and roads.
Last year, President Rodrigo Duterte told the military to reduce the number of exercises with the US Armed Forces but Año said this policy has changed.
He noted the toned-down statement of the President last week in Eastern Samar that he would rather be friends with the Americans.
“After all, we are not enemies with the US and we are not enemies with China…our utmost priority is the interest of the country, that’s all,” Año said in a news conference after the handover ceremony of firearms from China.
The planned exercises for next year will also include territorial defense but Año said it has nothing to do with the dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea.
“This means that as what the President had said, he wants to be friendlier to the US so we decided to have more exercises and closer relationship with the US,” Año said.
Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr., AFP spokesman, said the bulk of the exercises to be held next year involve HADR and counter-terrorism.
“These are all part of the MDB-SEB, so the regular exercises that we have been getting including the Balikatan, is among the military and bilateral engagements,” Padilla said.
Also, the two military organizations have identified the locations where storage areas can be set up as provided for under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Padilla said some of the storage areas have been finished, particularly those where equipment for disaster response will be kept.
Año said the agreed locations or military bases that US troops can use are Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija; Mactan, Cebu; Lumbia, Cagayan de Oro; Basa in Lipa, Batangas; and Antonio Bautista Air Base near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
“The construction is continuing, it cannot be just funded at one time and the budget we got is not that huge so it would have to be one step at a time including the other constructions or the training facilities,” Padilla said.