The Philippines and the United States on Monday began their biggest joint military exercise since 2015, underscoring improved defense ties after President Rodrigo Duterte withdrew some old war games to advance heated ties with China. did.
The annual “Balikatan” (shoulder to shoulder) exercise involves 8,900 soldiers this year and will include live fire exercises and training with amphibious assault vehicles.
Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has sought closer ties with China in exchange for pledges of loans, aid and investment, and distanced himself from the United States, a treaty ally.
But last year he withdrew threats to end a two-decade-old agreement that governs the presence of US troops in the Southeast Asian country.
“We are sending a message to the world that the alliance between our countries is stronger than ever,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delphine Lorenzana said in a statement.
Balikatan’s deployment in 2017 was reduced to about 5,500 troops from the previous year and all combat-related exercises were stripped at the behest of Duterte, who saw them as an obstacle to rapprochement with China.
Live fire exercises returned in 2018 and 2019, but the scale of the drills remained small and was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, compared to last year’s participation of only 640 soldiers.
US exercise director, Major General Jay Bargeron, said the latest exercises, which are designed to improve the country’s defensive capabilities and readiness to respond to crises, should not be seen as a show of force.
But the exercise, which will last two weeks, has drawn Manila criticism of China’s maritime activities in disputed parts of the South China Sea.
Despite efforts to forge closer ties, the Philippines has become more critical of Beijing’s actions, including a “swarm” by militias-operated fishing vessels from the disputed Spratly Islands and the blockade of a military re-supply mission last year.
Manila recently called out the Chinese ambassador to the Chinese Navy ship’s “illegal incursion and protracted presence”.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which approximately $3 trillion of ship-borne trade passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have their own claims on the waterway.
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