Philippine and United States soldiers commenced a two-week joint military exercise on Monday called “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder), signaling the resumption of the annual event after it was cancelled last year due to the pandemic outbreak.
The decision was made after a phone discussion between defense ministers Lloyd Austin (US) and Delfin Lorenzana (Philippines) that covered drills, the South China Sea scenario and recent developments in regional security.
The Balikatan exercises, which test militaries’ readiness to respond to natural disasters, militant attacks and the like, will be pared down. This year, only 1,700 troops will join in, whereas before, as many as 7,600 soldiers had participated.
“There will be physical contact but it is minimal,” said Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana.
The drills were prompted by the recent presence of Chinese vessels inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone at Whitsun Reef.
The Philippines has asked China repeatedly to move their boats away but Chinese envoys claimed that they were merely sheltering from rough seas and that no troops were present.
The discussion between Lorenzana and Austin also touched on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a 20-year-old arrangement which Pres. Rodrigo Duterte unilaterally junked after Sen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa was denied a US visa back in January last year.
However, the agreement’s withdrawal period was extended, leaving room for more time to negotiate better terms.
Lorenzana had also asked Austin to help expedite the delivery of Covid19 vaccines that the Philippine government ordered from Moderna, to which the US defense secretary said he would “look into the issue and bring it to the attention of the office concerned.”
Photo: Jonathan Daniel/ Ezra Shaw