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12 Apr, 2021 14:30

US & Philippines launch ‘Balikatan’ war games amid heightened South China Sea tensions

US & Philippines launch ‘Balikatan’ war games amid heightened South China Sea tensions

Washington and Manilla have started a two-week long military drill, featuring 736 Filipino troops and a further 225 US soldiers, as tensions simmer in the South China Sea and tens of Chinese ships linger at a Filipino reef.

This year’s drills, which started on Monday, are significantly smaller than previous years because of the Covid-19 pandemic, with Filipino participation down from nearly 8,000 troops in previous years to fewer than 1,000. 

In a speech, Major General Edgard Arevalo said that all ground exercises had been cancelled, with the exception of live fire drills as they did not involve face-to-face engagement. Bilateral staff exercises, close air support training, subject matter exchanges, maritime security training, and humanitarian and civic assistance activities will all take place, while a number of planned drills will now be held in a tabletop or simulation format. 

In a statement read by his undersecretary, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Balikatan drills would “strengthen our capabilities in addressing traditional and non-traditional security challenges amidst the increasingly complex situation in the region.” 

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Meanwhile, US Chargé d’Affaires in Manila John Law said that, despite the pandemic, America would continue to look for ways “to strengthen our security cooperation” with the Philippines.He added: “Joint exercises like Balikatan demonstrate our shared commitment to peace and stability and the adaptability of US and Philippine forces.” 

A statement by the US embassy in Manila confirmed that only 225 US soldiers would take part this year due to strict Covid-19 protocol.

The drills, which have taken place for two decades with the exception of 2020, come amid ongoing tensions between China and the US and its allies. While China has been particularly critical of US interventionism in the South China Sea, notably the passage of a US warship through the Taiwan Strait last week and its support of the government in Taipei, Beijing has in turn been criticized by the US and the Philippines after 220 Chinese vessels took shelter at a Filipino reef. 

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Beijing said the ships had been forced to move into the Philippines-claimed territory because of “bad weather.” A month after their arrival, 37 of the vessels remain in the Julian Felipe Reef, which sits in the hotly contested Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. The reef was mostly submerged until the 1990s, but as dunes emerged from the sea in the late 20th century, territorial claims became possible. Manila says the reef falls within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

US-Filipino relations were rocked in 2020 when President Rodrigo Duterte cancelled Washington’s Visiting Forces Agreement after a political ally was denied a US visa. While the cancellation has since been deferred, Duterte has called on the US to give more aid to the Philippines in return for a new agreement. 

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