THIS year’s joint military exercises between Philippine and US troops remains “relevant and beneficial” even if scaled down to training on counter-terrorism and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), the American training director for the “Balikatan” (shoulder to shoulder) exercises said.
“Despite the fact that this is not a large-scale conventional force, a portion of ‘Balikatan’ this year, the counter-terrorism (training) is legitimate. It’s real, its something we’re doing together and I think that continued training on that is beneficial for both of our nations,” Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson said shortly after the opening ceremonies of the annual military drills this week.
“HADR is always relevant and I think especially as typhoon season [draws near]across the region, our ability to respond and help neighbors has never been more important,” he said.
“Balikatan” 2017, which began on May 8 and will end on May 19, features mostly high-impact HADR training, including rescuing people trapped in a collapsed structure during a massive earthquake and landing relief units and goods in a typhoon-isolated area.
HADR is one of the missions President Rodrigo Duterte wants the Armed Forces of the Philippines to be proficient in, along with counter-terrorism.
When asked whether US troops, 2,600 of whom are participating in “Balikatan,” felt let down because of the exercises’ focus on HADR and counter-terrorism, Nicholson said this was not the case.
“I can tell you that every Marine, sailor, soldier, man coming to the Philippines for the exercise, is not disappointed. They are looking forward to it. Again, as I said, HADR and counter-terrorism are two critically important areas of concern for both of our nations, for all other nations, so I think there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.
A total of 2,800 Filipinos and 80 military personnel from the Australian Defense Force are also participating in the 12-day exercise.
“There’s a lot of sharing of techniques and tactics and procedures so we’re excited by the work that we are going to do, and yes absolutely, we think [that]in the years ahead, there will be different focuses for ‘Balikatan,’ so I’m confident of this year’s success,” Nicholson said.
The exercises were only downscaled after Duterte sought to end the “Balikatan” exercises with the US last year, so as not to agitate China. Duterte also claimed there was no transfer of technical know-how during large-scale drills with the Americans.
Manila however has treaty obligations with Washington.
Apart from the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty in which both countries agreed to defend each other in case of an external attack, Manila and Washington signed in 1998 a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) governing the conduct of American soldiers in the Philippines.
The 10-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed by the previous Aquino administration in 2014, a supplement to the VFA, allows the rotational presence of US troops as well as their access to Philippine military facilities.