PH-US ‘Balikatan’ drills to return full blast in 2022
MANILA, Philippines—The biggest annual exercises between the Philippines and United States would return full blast in 2022 with other “like-minded” countries joining as observers in an apparent display of unity in a tense Indo-Pacific region.
The Balikatan drills, the largest military exercises of the two longtime allies, had been scaled down this year due to the pandemic and had been cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 threat.
“The alliance is stronger today than it has ever been,” said Admiral John Aquilino, US Indo-Pacific commander, said at a press briefing.
“We value the capabilities, capacity, expertise that the Philippines, our Philippine counterparts bring, but it’s strengthened by our increased operations and exercises together,” he said.
Aquilino was in Manila for an annual defense cooperation meeting, where Philippine and US officials agreed to “continued, robust relations.” The Philippines and US militaries have planned to hold more than 300 joint activities in 2022.
The escalation in military engagement comes after President Rodrigo Duterte, who had embraced China as a best friend, aborted a plan to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, a key pact governing the presence of American troops in the Philippines for war drills and exercises.
China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea and tension in the entire South China Sea in recent months have prompted the Philippines to lean back to its longtime ally.
Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Jose Faustino Jr. said the United Kingdom could be a new addition to like-minded countries previously participating as observers, like Australia and Japan.
Australia, UK and US (AUKUS) recently formed a trilateral security partnership that would support Australia’s capability development and contribute to security in the region.
But the AUKUS is widely seen as an effort to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The Philippines has been supportive of the new partnership but other Southeast Asian countries were concerned that it could trigger a nuclear arms race.
“We acknowledge the right of those countries, for example Australia, in developing their defense capabilities. And the key word really is a rules-based international order. So we will benefit from that,” Faustino said.
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