Biggest ‘Balikatan’ will stress territorial defense

This year’s Balikatan exercises—which will gather some 11,000 military personnel from the Philippines and the United States—will focus on territorial defense, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said Sunday.

Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Joselito Kakilala said the war games will not only enhance interoperability for combined operations but also boost the AFP’s joint operations capability for “territorial defense, internal security operations, humanitarian assistance and development response, and peacekeeping.”

AFP chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang will also show new aerial photos of China’s expansion in disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea as the joint military exercises open today.

Armed Forces public affairs chief Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc said the new images highlight the country’s growing concern over “the aggressiveness of China.”

“We also do not want it to become a military confrontation. But what China is doing is dangerous. It will affect everyone,” Cabunoc added.

Naval maneuvers were originally scheduled in two major points in Palawan and Zambales fronting the disputed sites in the West Philippine Sea where China is conducting reclamation activities, but these exercises were shelved for still unknown reasons.

Kakilala said the annual exercises enhance the country’s capability to defend its territory, contrary to criticism from leftist groups that the war games benefit only the United States.

Earlier, the secretary-general of the leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said the annual war games were an “affront to Philippine sovereignty.”

“The Balikatan war games will not help the Philippines against the expansionist activities of China in the region. Numerous Balikatan exercises from the 1980s onwards have failed to help modernize the Philippine military. Even the de facto basing pact, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which marks its first anniversary on April 27, will not develop our country’s defenses,” Reyes said.

Reyes added that the military exercise are meant to project US power in the region and increase American involvement in Philippine internal affairs.

“It is not true that the US is out to protect us against China’s incursions and reclamation projects in the West Philippine Sea. The US has repeatedly said that it that does not take sides in the maritime dispute,” he said.

He added that the US, which owes China $1.3 trillion, would not engage it in a shooting war.

“Our national leaders are only being made to believe that the US is there to support us. In

truth, the US is only concerned with its own imperialist interests in Asia. We assert that our national interest is not identical with US strategic pivot to the region,” he added.

But Kakilala dismissed Reyes’ views as “myopic.”

He also questioned the agenda of Bayan, which he described as a front for the Communist Party of the Philippines.

Because of the magnitude of China’s intrusion in the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines will seek more sophisticated military equipment from the US to beef up its maritime patrols, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said.

Del Rosario, however, did not say what kind of equipment the Philippines will seek.

But Reyes said the equipment being requested for maritime surveillance would be owned and operated by the United States.

“The DFA is basically allowing the US to put up military facilities on Philippine territory, in the guise of helping us counter China. Increased US involvement in the Philippines should also be seen in the context of the former’s involvement in the Bangsamoro peace process,” he said.

The Palace said Sunday this year’s exercises will double the number of soldiers involved from last year, in a sign of the expanding military partnership between the US and the Philippines.

Earlier, President Benigno Aquino III said the military organizations of both countries operating side by side should offer a “ any entity, be it a country or Islamic radicals.”

Aquino said, however, that the war games are not directed at China.

On Tuesday, marines were expected to conduct beach landing exercises from a naval base facing the South China Sea just 220 kilometers from the Philippine-claimed shoal that China has controlled since 2012.

Aside from the naval base, live fire and disaster response drills will also be held in various military camps outside Manila, reports also said.

The US has been looking to re-build its military presence in the Philippines as part of US President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”

“The reason why these exercises are called Balikatan, the two countries will be at shoulder-to-shoulder in their purpose or goals to achieve the strength of security, and would be ready face all

challenges in any crisis or calamity that would bring danger to the public,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said.

Coloma said the armed forces of the two countries continue to communicate to ensure that peace and stability of security would prevail in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Coloma said that the launching of immediate preparations against calamities is another important aspect of the cooperation between the two countries.

Personnel under the Balikatan exercises will also conduct structural assessment of seaports and airports that were damaged by super typhoon Yolanda, he added.

Construction of school buildings and training for first responders are also part of the joint exercises, military officials said.

Australia will also join this year’s exercises.

Lt. Col. Marlowe Patria, Philippine Balikatan public information officer, said the joint exercises will seek to optimize teamwork in three areas: disaster response, territorial defense and community development.

Other sites of the joint exercise are the naval base in Cavite, and an Army base in Crow Valley in Tarlac.

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