AGAINST a backdrop of China’s frenzied reclamation projects in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), the Philippines and the United States begin on Monday this year’s Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) military exercises that Malacañang said will boost both countries’ readiness to respond to threats in the region.
In an interview over government-owned Radyo ng Bayan on Sunday, Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said while the wargames are not directly aimed against China, these are meant to maintain a high level of preparedness for any contingency.
Balikatan 2015 is twice as big as last year’s and involves non-military activities such as construction of school buildings and roadways in places where the wargames will be held.
“Patuloy ang masinsing pakikipag-ugnayan ng Sandatahang Lakas ng dalawang bansa upang matiyak ang mataas na antas ng kahandaang pairalin ang katahimikan at estabilidad ng seguridad sa bahaging ito ng rehiyong Asya Pasipiko. Ang kahandaan sa paglulunsad ng agarang pagtugon sa mga krisis bunsod ng mga kalamidad ay isa ring mahalagang aspeto ng kooperasyon [The militaries of both countries continue to coordinate to ensure a high level of preparedness for peace and stability in the region. This readiness to respond to any crisis or calamity is one of the aspects of this cooperation],” Coloma said.
The 10-day drills, he added, will ensure vigilance against any crisis or calamity that may endanger the people.
This year’s wargames involve 6,656 US soldiers, 5,023 personnel of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and 61 soldiers from the Australian Defense Forces (ADF). At least 91 aircraft will be used.
Some of the military exercises will be held on the central island of Palawan, which is near disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea.
Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, chief of the AFP Public Affairs Office, refused to discuss why the maritime activities will be held close to a maritime flashpoint. But he said part of it was the AFP’s preparation to defend the country from “any external armed aggression.”
He emphasized though that the increase in the number of participants has nothing to do with China’s saber-rattling.
The doubling of the size of the annual war games, according to Cabunoc, is an indication that the commitment of both countries to help each other has leveled up.
“Yung pagtutulungan ng bawat bansa, mga participants [ay]upang ma-improve ang ating capabilities sa military to military engagements and non-military activities at kasama na dyan yung mga training. Example, meron tayong more or less 16 activities na mga activities na gagawin sa iba’t ibang lugar [The cooperation between the two countries, among the participants, aims to improve capabilities in military-to-military engagements and non-military activities, and those include training. For example, we have lined up at least 16 activities in various places],” he said.
To coincide with the Balikatan opening, according to Cabunoc, AFP chief Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. will be presenting photos of structures constructed by China in the contested waterway.
“Ipapakita natin na dapat may concrete actions tayong gagawin, dapat may concrete actions din tayong gagawin at ipaalam natin sa boung mundo na hindi lamang ito concern ng mga Pilipino, concern ito ng lahat na gumagamit dyan sa, yun mga sea lanes, maapektuhan lahat, kasi we don’t really know ano ang next step nya [China] once they have taken these islets, reefs [We will show to the world that these (China’s sea reclamations are) not just a concern of Filipinos but of everyone who uses the sea lanes because we don’t really know what step China will take once they have taken these islets and reefs],” he pointed out.
The AFP, Cabunoc said, seeks to widen awareness on implications of Chinese incursions that may cause military confrontation.
The wargames will include live fire drills, field training and air and naval exercises that aim to improve tactics, techniques, procedures and inter-operability of Philippine and American troops; and reinforce relations.
The participants will also conduct seminars for “first responders” in times of disasters while others will hold community health-related training.
The Department of National Defense will assess seaports and airports in the provinces of Capiz, Aklan and Iloilo that were hit by Typhoon Yolanda as part of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief program.
But the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said the Balikatan exercises will not help the Philippines against the expansionist activities of China in the region.
“The joint exercises are intended to boost US power projection in the region and increase US involvement in the Philippines’ internal affairs. It is not true that the US is out to protect us against China’s incursions and reclamation projects in the West Philippine Sea. The US has repeatedly said that it that does not take sides in the maritime dispute,” Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. said.