MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine and US militaries are set to hold the first Balikatan war games under President Rodrigo Duterte in the summer.
Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Eduardo Año said the Balikatan will start in April and will be led by Lieutenant General Oscar Lactao.
Lactao is chief of the Central Command (Centcom), the military unit responsible for the Visayas. He said the activities were still being finalized.
Rappler learned that American soldiers are expected to arrive in April for outreach activities in Eastern Visayas but the war games will begin in May.
The Balikatan is the biggest of dozens of joint activities between the two allies bound by a Mutual Defense Treaty. Duterte previously threatened to scrap annual joint military exercises, but he was persuaded against it. He imposed limitations on the war games instead.
Local reports cite Ormoc City in Eastern Visayas as the host of the Balikatan activities. Mayor Richard Gomez was quoted as saying that the activities will include medical missions, book donations, and the construction and repair of school buildings and health centers.
No more war games in West PH Sea
War games under the previous Aquino administration included joint exercises in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) in an apparent attempt to send China a message. A source confirmed no activity will be held there anymore.
In 2016, the Balikatan war games saw for the first time the participation of the highest US defense official – then US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter who boarded a warship close to flashpoint waters in the West Philippine Sea. The exercises were held amid fears that China had deployed missiles to artificial islands it built in the disputed area.
The exercises in 2016 also included simulated assault exercises using an advanced US long-range missile system, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).
The US reaffirmed its “ironclad” commitment to defend the Philippines, but Duterte was not impressed. He said the US should not have allowed China to build the artificial islands in the first place.
The two militaries were holding Phiblex exercises in the West Philippine Sea last year, one of the 3 major war games, when Duterte again threatened to stop the annual activity. (READ: The ‘last war games’ in the West Philippine Sea)
He was prevailed upon to allow the continuation of the war games but the focus would no longer be on the West Philippine Sea. The CARAT exercises, which involved ship-to-ship training, was scrapped. – Rappler.com