PartnershipsSoutheast Asia

Balikatan 2024 builds Philippine-U.S. interoperability, multilateral partnerships

Maria T. Reyes

Philippine and United States troops kicked off their largest annual combat drills in late April 2024, joined by participants from Australia and France and observers from Brunei, Canada, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Vietnam.

Exercise Balikatan, a Tagalog word meaning shoulder to shoulder, is among the most complex Philippine-U.S. drills. The training continues through May 10 and involves more than 16,000 troops. For the first time, the exercise includes joint naval operations in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), part of the South China Sea where tensions have escalated in the past year over the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) aggressive actions to push its arbitrary territorial claims.

Philippine and U.S. military personnel train during Balikatan 2024 in the Philippines.

France deployed a naval vessel to the exercise for the first time, the frigate FS Vendémiaire, while the Philippine and U.S. coast guards deployed vessels for the joint naval exercises for the first time.

As the 39th iteration of Balikatan began, Philippine military officials also announced that Japan would join the exercise as an inaugural participant in 2025.

Drills are being held across the Philippines, including in the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Northern Luzon, Southern Luzon and Western commands’ areas of operation, mostly facing the South China Sea and self-governed Taiwan.

“Exercises in those locations operate based on … international law and [are] well within your sovereign rights and responsibilities,” U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. William Jurney, the U.S.’s exercise director for Balikatan, said at a news conference.

Philippine and U.S. Soldiers gather after a Balikatan training activity at Fort Magsaysay, Philippines, in April 2024.

Philippine and U.S. forces will sink a decommissioned ship and rehearse island recapture in Batanes and Palawan provinces. In other exercise firsts, a Philippine Navy vessel will launch an anti-ship missile and the Philippine Air Force will use surface-to-air missiles in an integrated defense drill.

In advance of Balikatan, the U.S. Army deployed its new ground-based Mid-Range Capability missile system, also known as the Typhon weapons system, to Northern Luzon.

“This is a significant step in our partnership with the Philippines,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Bernard Harrington said in a statement. “We’re grateful to our partners in the Armed Forces of the Philippines and we’re excited to expand our security cooperation as we bring this new capability to Luzon.”

Balikatan aims to address “the development of interoperability, our collective effort, protection of international law and making sure that freedom of navigation in these areas … [is] not impeded by any other parties,” AFP Maj. Gen. Marvin Licudine, the Philippines’ exercise director, told reporters.

The PRC claims most of the South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion of ship-borne trade annually. An international tribunal ruled in 2016 that the PRC’s excessive claims in the disputed waters have no legal foundation. Beijing, however, has refused to acknowledge the ruling.

Licudine said the PRC is expected to deploy military assets in the vicinity of Balikatan drills, some of which will take place near artificial maritime features Beijing has built and militarized within the Philippines’ EEZ.

Balikatan participants are also conducting cybersecurity and information operations training, along with community engagement and construction projects.

The exercise follows summits in Washington, D.C., among the leaders of Japan, the Philippines and the U.S. focused on strengthening economic and security cooperation.

AFP chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said Balikatan represents “unity, collective responsibility and enduring partnership” among the Philippines, the U.S. and other partners.

“It is not a partnership of convenience but rather a clear reflection of our shared history, unwavering commitment to democracy and respect for international law in our pursuit of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region,” he said at the opening ceremony.

Maria T. Reyes is a FORUM contributor reporting from Manila, Philippines.

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