Scale of U.S.-Philippines military exercises escalates to "territorial defense"

China Military Online
Yao Jianing

The photo shows a scene of a U.S.-Philippines military exercise.(File photo)

BEIJING, April 7 (ChinaMil) -- The U.S. and the Philippines will hold the Exercise Balikatan 2016, the 32nd iteration of the Balikatan Exercises, from April 4 to 15, and Japan will participate as an observer, which has drawn close attention.

An overview of joint military exercises between the U.S. and the Philippines in recent years shows that the Balikatan Exercises have escalated both in scale and equipment.

In particular, the purpose of those exercises has shifted from anti-terrorism to territorial defense and the contents have become increasingly sensitive, with a deeper involvement of Japan as well.

Military exercises in past six years: escalated scale and more sensitive location

After the U.S. closed its military base in the Philippines in 1991, the annual U.S.-Philippines Balikatan Exercises have been a "pillar" in maintaining the two countries' military alliance, and the U.S. has frequently entered and exited the Philippines in the name of military exercises after they signed the Visiting Forces Agreement in 1998.

As of April 2016, the two sides have held 32 joint military exercises, and those in the past five years have been most conspicuous for their scale and sensitivity.

From April 6 to 15, 2011, the U.S. and the Philippines held the 10-day Exercise Balikatan 2011, the 27th of its kind between the two sides involving 3,000 American soldiers. During the exercises, the two sides held the largest-scale field training at that time.

From April 16 to 27, 2012, the U.S. and the Philippines held the 12-day Exercise Balikatan 2012 that involved 6,800 troops, including 2,300 Philippine soldiers and 4,500 American ones.

The two countries invited some ASEAN countries as well as Japan, the ROK and Australia to participate in the computer-simulated exercises for the first time. At that time, the Philippines was making provocations in waters off China's Huangyan Island, and the exercises were considered "highly targeted".

From April 5 to 17, 2013, the U.S. and the Philippines held the 13-day Exercise Balikatan 2013 at Subic Bay in north Philippines, at which the participating troops increased from 6,800 to 8,000. The U.S. dispatched 20 warplanes for the first time, including 12 F-18 Hornet fighter jets, and one warship.

From April 20 to 30, 2015, the U.S. and the Philippines held the 11-day Exercise Balikatan 2015 that involved 11,000 troops, including more than 5,000 Philippine troops and more than 6,600 American ones. The U.S. dispatched 76 warplanes and 3 warships while the Philippines dispatched 15 warplanes and 1 warship.

From April 4 to 15, 2016, the U.S. and the Philippines will hold the 12-day Exercise Balikatan 2016 that allegedly involves more than 10,000 troops, including 3,773 from the Philippines and 4,904 from the United States. Australia assigned more than 80 soldiers to participate while Japan participated as an observer.

The U.S. will use the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) in the live-fire exercise, which will be the first time that the M142 HIMARS is used in the U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises.

In recent years, the Exercise Balikatan has continuously escalated in scale and intensifies from 3,000 to 6,000 and all the way to the record 11,000-plus troops, and the military equipment such as warplane, warship and artillery rocket system has been constantly upgraded, with considerable increase of forces from the U.S.

Military exercises more multilateral with deeper involvement of Japan

Analysts said that since the U.S. put forth the "Asia-Pacific rebalancing" strategy in 2011, it has been trying to make the Exercise Balikatan a multilateral military exercise, so the nature and focus of the U.S.-Philippines joint exercises have obviously changed.

While previous military exercises were more focused on anti-terrorism, anti-piracy and cracking down on anti-government armed forces in the Philippines, they have focused on maritime disputes and territorial defense in recent years, and the location of the exercises has been closer to sensitive areas.

This year, an "island occupation exercise" was even added. This is generally regarded as a strong signal that the U.S. will return to the Asia-Pacific area and interfere in the South China Sea.

In the Exercise Balikatan 2012, the U.S. and the Philippines invited some ASEAN countries and America's allies in the Asia-Pacific area such as Japan, the ROK and Australia to participate for the first time.

In the Exercise Balikatan 2013, Australia, Brunei, Japan, the ROK and Thailand all assigned representatives to participate in the multilateral roundtable discussions on maritime security.

In 2015, Australia was the only third-party country participating in the joint military exercises apart from the U.S. and the Philippines, and seven countries including Vietnam, ROK and Japan were invited to observe. Japan also participated as an observer in 2016.

According to analysis, for Japan that has just put forth the new security bills that are aimed to lift the ban on its right to collective self-defense, what it wants from the U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises is far more than being an observer.

Amy Searight, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South & Southeast Asia, said recently that "Japan wishes to participate further".

Japan and the Philippines are negotiating for an agreement that stipulates the legal standing of self-defense-guards' activities in the latter. If the agreement were signed, the Japanese Self-defense Forces would officially participate in U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises.

Japan and the Philippines have had frequent military interactions in the past year and their relation has become closer. They held the first joint maritime military exercise on waters between the Philippines' Manila Bay and Subic Bay last year.

At present, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) is coordinating with the U.S. and the Philippines about the JDS Ise, its largest helicopter destroyer, berthing at Subic Bay of the Philippines' Luzon Island that faces the South China Sea for the first time next month for joint exercises with American and Philippine navies.

It is expected that instead of being an observer, Japan will officially participate in the U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises and it will be "involved deeper" in America's Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy.

The article is extracted from The opinions expressed here are those of the article and don't represent views of the China Military Online website.


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