US defense chief to visit PH amid tension over South China Sea
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter will visit the Philippines for this year’s Balikatan exercises amid rising tensions over China’s sweeping expansion in the South China Sea.
“He’s going to be here towards the ends of the exercise and he will observe a couple of things. He’s interested with the high mobility rocket system,” said Lt. Gen. John Toolan, US Exercise Director for Balikatan 2016 in a press briefing.
The M143 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System or HIMARS is a US light multiple rocket launcher mounted on a standard army medium tactical vehicle truck frame and has a range of 300 kilometers. It will be the first time that it will be used for the bilateral exercises.
Carter is the first US defense secretary to personally observe the Balikatan.
“I believe that his main purpose here to reaffirm that our relationship is rock solid and we’re side by side,” Toolan said.
Toolan said Carter will also “spend time out at sea” but did not say whether it was in the waters of the disputed South China Sea.
“He’s going to spend time out at sea with US naval ships navigating out there,” he said.
Last year, Carter visited the South China Sea, a symbolic swipe at China’s aggressive actions, when he visited an American aircraft carrier in Malaysia.
Maj. Gen. Rodolfo Santiago, assistant exercise director for the Balikatan, said in a separate interview with reporters that Carter will also visit Palawan and attend the Balikatan’s closing ceremonies.
About 10,000 American, Philippine, and Australian forces, which formally opened on Monday at Camp Aguinaldo, will participate in this year’s Balikatan. Japanese observers were also invited.
Other countries that will participate as observers are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, India, South Korea, and Timor-Leste.
Officials have reiterated that the joint exercises have nothing to do with the South China Sea dispute. Activities include humanitarian civic assistance projects, simulation support events, bilateral force integrations training, and interoperability operational events at various military camps.
The Balikatan 2016 is scheduled from April 4 to 15. It will be held in Antique, Panay, Palawan, Tarlac, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, and Zambales. JE
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