Joint Philippine-American exercises begin today for the month-long Balance Piston in Palawan, with 40 elite Filipino troopers taking part. The US and Philippine officials have agreed to forego live-fire maneuvers, Philippine Army spokesman Col. Benjamin Hao said. This appears to be a change resulting from President Duterte’s earlier declaration that while we will respect the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US, assault and live-fire drills will be discontinued.
Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay Jr. explained the change in a briefing for media last Friday. He said he had met with US Secretary of State John Kerry and the US government had agreed that joint exercises will now be redirected to cooperation in fighting terrorism, illegal drugs, and corruption, and in disaster risk management, away from combat exercises.
President Duterte, Secretary Yasay said, has assured that the Philippines will respect EDCA and other support agreements under the Mutual Defense Treaty, but the joint exercises should not be “demonstrative of preparing ourselves for any eventual attack from aggressors, particularly China.”
Yasay said the Mutual Defense Treaty was executed in 1951 at a time when it was feared that if Korea fell to the Communists, the other countries in the region – Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and the Philippines would be next, like falling dominoes. Well, the domino theory has not materialized, he said. In Southeast Asia today, there is instead a strong Association of Southeast Asian Nations, rather than a Communist hegemony as feared.
“So we have told the United States that maybe we should tone down and not focus on joint military exercises,” Secretary Yasay said. Instead the focus should be on fighting new threats like terrorism, drugs, and natural disasters.
In recent months, President’s statements in relation to the US have been described as controversial and subjected to clarifications, interpretations, and justifications, with one cabinet member even urging that they be considered with creative imagination. They have been seen as generally negative, while tending to favor closer ties with China as well as with Russia.
What is now developing is a new Philippine foreign policy. It is not a rejection of our close traditional ties with the US, only a modification that includes closer ties with other nations, particularly our giant neighbor to the northwest, China. We have issues with China, particularly our overlapping claims in the South China Sea, but President Duterte believes these can best be settled under his new, more independent foreign policy. The new focus of Balance Piston is in line with this emerging new policy.