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Philippines, U.S. stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ in defense of Free and Open Indo-Pacific

Philippines, U.S. stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ in defense of Free and Open Indo-Pacific


As the Philippines continues to protest an incursion into its waters by hundreds of Chinese maritime militia vessels, the United States is demonstrating — in word and deed — that it stands shoulder to shoulder with its longtime Indo-Pacific ally.

Hundreds of personnel from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the U.S. Armed Forces participated in Exercise Balikatan 36, a two-week series of live-fire drills and simulated war games. The annual exercise, which concluded in late April 2021 at Camp Aguinaldo, the AFP’s headquarters in Quezon City, is named for the Tagalog phrase for “shoulder to shoulder.” (Pictured: Philippine and United States Airmen prepare for a simulated close air support rehearsal at Col. Ernesto Ravina Air Base in Tarlac, Philippines, as part of Exercise Balikatan in April 2021.)

“Allow me to convey my gratitude to the U.S. government …  for its unwavering support to this annual exercise,” Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana said during the closing ceremony attended by officials from both nations, according to GMA News in the Philippines. “I am likewise grateful for your constant and continued assurance of the ironclad commitment to our Mutual Defense Treaty.”

Balikatan demonstrates the “strength and resolve” of the 70-year-old alliance as well as the nations’ ability “to jointly respond to crises,” Acting U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines John Law said.

“But training is never over,” Law said, according to a U.S. Embassy news release. “We will continue to advance our military-to-military partnership in pursuit of our shared commitment to mutual defense in a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

Days before the exercise ended, a Philippine government task force said it was deploying additional ships and aircraft to conduct sovereignty patrols in the West Philippine Sea to protect the nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), according to Reuters. The government filed a diplomatic protest with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in late March 2021 calling for the Chinese flotilla to withdraw immediately from Whitsun Reef. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also expressed concern to China’s ambassador to his nation, citing an international tribunal’s dismissal of the PRC’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, the eastern portions of which encompass the West Philippine Sea.

Beijing claims the vessels are fishing boats that moored in Chinese waters to avoid bad weather. However, analysts say the maritime militia masquerades as a fishing fleet to encroach into other nations’ EEZs in the South China Sea in defiance of the 2016 tribunal ruling. Some of the flotilla was lingering in the reef as of mid-April, prompting the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs to summon the Chinese ambassador to express displeasure over the vessels’ continued presence, The Manila Times newspaper reported.

The Philippine task force also announced enhanced enforcement operations against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in its waters, Reuters reported. “We are exhausting all means possible to protect our territory and EEZ,” the task force said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated U.S. support for the rule of law in the South China Sea, a vital trade route, during an early April 2021 call with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

“Secretary Blinken also reaffirmed the applicability of the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty to the South China Sea,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. “Secretary Blinken and Secretary Locsin welcomed enhanced bilateral and multilateral cooperation on the South China Sea.”

In addition to their defense treaty, the nations’ Visiting Forces Agreement guides and facilitates the presence of U.S. forces in the Philippines. Following Balikatan, officials said potential updates to the 1998 agreement are being discussed. “I’m always optimistic that we are going to see positive results from that,” Law said, according to GMA News.

Although scaled back due to COVID-19 precautions, Balikatan included combined Air Force and special operations forces training to enhance interoperability, and virtual training and subject matter expert exchanges. As part of their humanitarian and civic assistance activities, Philippine and U.S. personnel completed construction of classrooms, a day care center and a health clinic in Quezon province, Philippines.

“Our success brings forth two important messages to the world: First, nations become stronger if we work together and, second, there is no threat too daunting if the burden is shared and shouldered together,” Lorenzana said, according to the Philippine news website Inquirer.net.