The annual Balikatan exercise between Philippine and American armed forces began last Monday. It is the 35th time the exercise is being held, with 4,000 Philippine and 3,500 American troops joined this year by 50 members of the Australian Defense Force.
Five years after the Philippines achieved independence from American colonial rule in 1946, the two countries signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951. Balikatan began in 1985 to enhance the two nations’ military organizations’ close relations through joint exercises. In 1992, the US closed down its bases in the Philippines, but the two countries signed a Visiting Forces Agreement in 1998 governing the conduct and protection of American troops visiting the Philippines and of Philippine troops visiting the US.
Balikatan has become the cornerstone of Philippine-American military relations, with Australia participating in the annual activity since 2014. This year’s exercise includes the usual land, amphibious, and aviation operations, along with humanitarian and civic assistance activities – the building of classrooms and clinics, health consultations, and holding of feeding programs for children.
At the opening ceremony Monday at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Brig. Gen. Christopher McPhillips, exercise director for the US side, said Balikatan has become one of the premier military training exercises in the Pacific and has helped maintain regional stability. The Philippine exercise director, Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay, said Balikatan enhances the ability of the two militaries to meet any crisis that may threaten the security of the nation.
In the last two years, threats to national and regional security have come largely from Islamic jihadist efforts to establish a Southeast Asian center for the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Now that ISIS forces have been forced out of Syria, they might step up their efforts for an ISIS caliphate in this part of the world.
The South China Sea also has its potential conflict areas, with the US especially concerned that it should remain free and open to all shipping and air travel under the principle of freedom of navigation. For a while there was great hope that the nuclear threat from North Korea was over, but the recent Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, failed to reach any final peace agreement.
It is in this atmosphere of uncertainty that the 35th Balikatan Exercise was launched last Monday. As in the past, it will serve to update the participating military forces on the latest in weaponry and operational practices.
Even more important, it should serve to reassure our two nations that we continue to share a common concern for security in our part of the world and a re solve to strive together in the face of challenges.