MANILA, Philippines—US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. made a show of tearing up the text of his prepared speech at the closing of the Philippines-US “Balikatan” military exercises on Friday, opting to speak extemporaneously.
Still, neither he nor any of the Filipino and American military officials in the room made any mention of China and the standoff in the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), which provided a backdrop for the two-week exercises in various parts of the country, including areas near disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Thomas did not acknowledge the Panatag issue in his brief remarks at the closing ceremony for Balikatan held at Camp Aguinaldo, during which he ripped up his notes, a gesture he said he imitated from former President Fidel V. Ramos.
“Now I’ve made my staff very nervous because now they go, ‘what he is going to say?’” he said to laughter.
But for a passing reference to an “assurance of the Mutual Defense Treaty” between the Philippines and the United States, Thomas did not make any controversial statements, quickly slipping out of the hall when the ceremony was over and avoiding reporters waiting at the door.
“I learned from my two years in the Philippines that we must conduct all of our activities with respect, with alignment of our priorities, with assurance of our Mutual Defense Treaty and knowing that we work with and under the wishes of President Aquino and Secretary of Defense (Voltaire) Gazmin,” he said.
“So thank you for letting us conduct this wonderful 28th Balikatan exercise. We appreciate being here in your country,” Thomas said.
The two-week Balikatan exercise commenced on April 16 and involved 4,500 American troops and 2,300 Filipino soldiers spread out in several towns, including war games in Puerto Princesa City on a bay facing sensitive pockets of the West Philippine Sea.
But the annual joint exercises attracted more attention than usual because of the Philippines’ continuing diplomatic spat with China over certain disputed territories, including a standoff between Philippine and Chinese forces at Panatag, known internationally as Scarborough Shoal.
The standoff followed a series of other confrontations in the contested waters with both sides trading accusations of intrusions on each other’s territories, particularly the Spratlys, a reputedly resource-rich chain of islets and reefs claimed by the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.