Balikatan Kicks Off

8 Apr

PMC_BAlikatan_ExerciseOn Saturday, the annual joint Philippines and United States Balikatan exercises began. Are these exercises related to other regional hotspots like North Korea and Spratlys? It’s not clear.

This year’s Balikatan military exercises between the Philippines and the United States kicked off yesterday amid the ongoing dispute in the West Philippine Sea and the growing tension in the Korean peninsula.

While the training is supposed to focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster response, officials said the drills would also help maintain stability in the region.

“This year’s Balikatan comes at a crucial time for my country and my region,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said during the exercise’s opening rites in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

“Balikatan, with its complex and comprehensive set of exercises, is an important contribution in not only preparing both our armed forces to work together, but also in building my country’s own capacity to defend itself,” he added.

Del Rosario said regional peace and stability have been placed at “serious risk” due to China’s claims in the West Philippine Sea.

“Excessive and exaggerated maritime and territorial claims have not only created uncertainty but have undermined the rule of law,” he said.

While Del Rosario was straightforward in putting Balikatan in the context of the territorial row, officials are careful not to relate the drills with the Korean peninsula tensions.

When asked what would be the role of US troops who joined Balikatan in the event that the tension in Korea escalates, US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. remarked: “We never deal with the hypothetical.”

“My job as a diplomat is to work toward peace. We’ll continue to work for peace,” he said.

Armed Forces chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista nevertheless said Balikatan is a product of deliberate planning “in the context of dynamic and evolving challenges in the region.”

“Balikatan is a clear affirmation of a shared commitment between the Philippines and the United States armed forces to move shoulder to shoulder for stability, security and development,” he said.

About 8,000 Filipino and American troops will participate in the exercises to be held from April 5 to 17.

A total of 20 US air assets, 12 of them fighter jets, will participate in this year’s exercise.

The twelve F/A-18 Hornets, which are designed to attack ground targets, will land at Clark Air Base, Pampanga.

The US Navy ship that will join the military exercise docked in Manila Bay last Tuesday to offload military personnel and equipment.

Nine air assets from the Philippine Air Force, two naval vessels and one islander plane will also be deployed to assist the participants.

Exercises will be held in Camp O’Donnell and Crow Valley in Tarlac, Subic Bay, and Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija.

Allies from the region were also invited to take part in the security roundtable discussion in Camp Aguinaldo next week. Invited were Australia, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam.

See, clear as tinted glass. The Philippine military spokesman for the exercises was more convincing unequivocal in his denial.

The PH-US Balikatan exercise had long been planned before the issue on the Korean peninsula emerged,” said Maj. Emmanuel Garcia, spokesperson for the joint exercises.

“Balikatan is not directed toward nor against any nation. Its focus is on the humanitarian aspect which comprises two-thirds of the total number of main (exercise) events,” he said.

Garcia told the INQUIRER he found it imperative to issue a statement after being constantly asked if the Balikatan was called in answer to the crisis resulting from the warmongering by North Korea which has threatened to fire missiles at South Korea and US territories in the Asia Pacific.

According to Garcia, Balikatan events are categorized into community health engagements and infrastructure construction and repair, humanitarian assistance and disaster response with focus on typhoon and maritime disaster, and traditional military engagement and combat focused on expert exchanges by both sides.

Major Garcia might have a career in this if he decides to leave the Philippines Army (AFP). And, various progressive groups opposed to the Balikatan certainly make the connection between “regional tensions” and the exercises.

The protesters under the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan held a protest caravan from Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, to Camp Aquino in Tarlac and then to Subic in Olangapo, all of which are involved in the annual Balikatan war games. Some 8,000 US and Philippine troops are expected to participate in the war exercises.

(…)

“The Aquino government should stop fooling itself and fooling the people that US military presence here is for our own good. The US war games primarily serves US power projection and the political and economic agenda of the US in the region. Despite so many military exercises in the past, our armed forces have remained backward, because the US wants to keep us dependent on military aid,” Reyes said.

“In exchange for second-hand military equipment, our sovereignty is undermined, our laws are violated and our environment damaged. We don’t enjoy special relations with the US. What we see are neo-colonial relations. We worry that the US war games could add further instability in the region, given what we are seeing in the Korean peninsula,” he added.

So, who is right?

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