Disaster response is this year’s focus in Balikatan
The usual war games between Philippine and American troops for the annual Balikatan exercises have been dropped in response to President Rodrigo Duterte’s intent to be distant from the country’s long-time ally.
The scaled-down version of this year’s drills, held from May 8 to 19, is linked to the President’s desire to rebalance the country’s foreign policy. He wanted to become less dependent on the United States, and has started to develop warmer ties with China and Russia.
Duterte even wanted joint Filipino and American drills scrapped last year but eventually softened his stance. But other PH-US drills were scrapped — the Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise (Phiblex) and Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (Carat), which focus on external and maritime security.
Unlike in previous years when maritime and external defense were highlights and drills were conducted in the West Philippine Sea, this year the President wanted to focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR).
“Political authorities give the guidance to us what is the priority. At this point in time, the priority of the President is HADR and counter terrorism so thats the thing we are focusing on now,” said Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao, Philippine exercise director for Balikatan.
This year’s drills may be apparently toned down also in terms of numbers — with about 5,000 Philippine and US participating troops combined from about 9,000 forces last year. But this fact does not seem to be a let down for American soldiers.
“I can tell you that every marine, sailor, soldier that’s coming to the Philippines that’s here for the exercise are not disappointed. They are looking forward, again as I said in there, the scope of this year’s exercise has changed and 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,” said Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, US exercise director for Balikatan.
“There’s a lot of sharing of techniques and tactics and procedures so we’re excited by the work that we’re gonna do,” he added.
This year’s Balikatan will simulate a response to a destructive super typhoon that will reach its peak in Luzon.
“I think under the current situation in the world when calamities are becoming more severe, I think we have to devote more resources and time to this kind of activity and also to counter terrorism,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in his speech.
Officials at the opening ceremony also emphasized the importance of the joint exercises to the relationship of both countries.
“The continuing growth of this exercise only shows the growing importance of the treaty alliance to many Filipinos,” said Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ariel Abadilla, who represented Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, who was on his way back to the country after a foreign ministers meeting in Washington.
“The Philippine government values the alliance with the United States and we will work to further deepen the very broad cooperation on matters of shared concern,” he said.
Armed Forces chief Gen. Eduardo Año looked back at the Philippine and US partnership “that withstood the test of time,” citing World War II to the Korean and Vietnam wars and up to the current fight against terrorism.
“Our armed forces have continuously shared ordeals that strengthened our bond,” he said.
US ambassador to Manila Sung Kim described Balikatan as not only a “very important exercise” but also represents the “robust relationship” of the two countries.
The Balikatan is part of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries signed in 1951. JE/rga
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