Thousands of US and Philippine troops yesterday began one of their largest combat exercises in years that was to include live-fire maneuvers, aircraft assaults, urban warfare and beach landings, in a showcase of US firepower in the northern Philippines near its sea border with Taiwan.
The annual exercises, called Balikatan — Filipino for “shoulder-to-shoulder” — are to run until Friday next week with nearly 9,000 navy, marines, air force and army troops, including 5,100 US military personnel, to strengthen the allies’ “capabilities and readiness for real-world challenges,” US and Philippine military officials said.
China would likely frown on the war drills given their relative proximity to Taiwan, but organizers said the exercises do not regard any particular nation as a target.
“The US military and Armed Forces of the Philippines will train together to expand and advance shared tactics, techniques and procedures that strengthen our response capabilities and readiness for real-world challenges,” said Major General Jay Bargeron, the US Third Marine Division’s commanding general. “Our alliance remains a key source of strength and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”
First staged in 1991, the exercises are anchored on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which commits the US and the Philippines to come to the aid of the other in case of an attack.
The allies aim to be strong and seamlessly braced for any security contingency as a deterrence against war.
“It’s for mutual defense, never for offense,” Philippine military spokesman Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
The treaty alliance “declares formally our sense of unity and determination to mutually defend against external armed attack, so that no potential aggressor could be under the impression that either of them stands alone,” Zagala said.
However, the governor of northern Cagayan province, where amphibious landings with limited live-fire maneuvers are scheduled to be held in the coastal town of Claveria this week, has opposed any joint exercise utilizing gunfire, fearing it could antagonize China.
“The military consulted and asked me, but I said I cannot allow any live-fire exercise. Any exercise is OK, but live-fire,” Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba said by telephone. “We have to engage China, but not in a war, because I know Taiwan is a powder keg.”
China, along with the US and Taiwan, have expressed interest in investing in Cagayan, which has an underdeveloped agricultural sector and related industries, Mamba said
“I’m not pro-China, I’m pro-Cagayan,” he said.
A Philippine military official said the beach landing exercises would proceed in Claveria without any live-fire training, which would be held instead at Crow Valley, an aircraft gunnery range in Tarlac province south of Cagayan.
The combat exercises are being held amid heightened tensions between Taiwan and China, but Zagala said most of the military maneuvers had been planned a year ago and did not consider the tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
Major Kurt Stahl of the US Third Marine Division said that while most combat exercises and humanitarian projects would take place in the north of the Philippines, some maneuvers would be staged on the western island province of Palawan, along with an air defense exercise featuring US and Philippine fighter aircraft around the western side of Luzon.
That region faces the disputed South China Sea, where China’s increasingly assertive actions, including the building of missile-protected island bases to reinforce its vast territorial claims, have sparked protests from rival claimants.
Taipei on Friday rejected Hanoi’s characterization of its recent live-fire drill near Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) as “illegal,” saying that Taiwan’s claim to the small island in the South China Sea was “unquestionable.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said in a statement that the comments made by its Vietnamese counterpart about the military’s routine live-fire drills near Itu Aba on Tuesday were “unacceptable.” Earlier on Friday, Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang called Taiwan’s military activity “a serious violation of Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty,” saying it had caused tensions and complicated the situation in the region. Hang
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