MANILA, Philippines – It’s not about China. It’s about reaffirming alliances especially in “difficult times.”
Armed Forces chief of staff Gen Jessie Dellosa issued this statement at the opening on Monday, April 16, of the PH-US Balikatan 2012, the 28th of such kind between Filipino and American troops.
“It is imperative for our ground forces to sustain operational readiness, keeping in mind the difficult times we are in now,” Dellosa said. “It is during these times that our alliances must be reaffirmed and through Balikatan, these joint military activities are conducted.”
Philippine Navy chief Alexander Pama said it’s only incidental that the exercises are being held against the backdrop of a standoff between Manila and Beijing over Scarborough Shoal.
Officials said Balikatan 2012 will test the preparedness of the two armed forces in responding to major disasters similar to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the floods in Bangkok.
“Aside from the earthquake and tsunami, we also had to deal with the threat of a nuclear meltdown,” Lt Col Yuzo Shibata of the Japanese Navy said. “Other nations including the US helped us go through that crisis, so we are now sharing the lessons and have a common operational procedure to cope any kind of disaster.”
At least 4,500 US troops and 2,300 Filipino soldiers will be participating in the 11-day bilateral military exercises that will be divided into 3 major components: command post exercise in Manila; field training exercises in Luzon, Palawan and parts of Mindanao; and civill-military operations that include the construction of new school buildings and delivery of free medial services, mostly in Puerto Princesa City.
Not in contested areas
“There are no exercises that will be held in contested areas. All events will be held in Philippine territories,” said Maj Emmanuel Garcia, spokesperson of the Philippine contingent to the Balikatan 2012.
Garcia said it was the Philippine government, supposedly through requests made by the Palawan local government, that asked both countries to hold Balikatan activities there.
Palawan is near the Spratlys, another disputed territory. Due to the island’s rich sea-based oil reserves, security drills will also be part of the war games.
In Puerto Princesa City, capital of Palawan, some Chinese boats remain in the hands of the Philippine Naval Forces West, which is based in the city and tasked to secure the Spratlys. Philippine Navy personnel seized these boats during numerous incidents of Chinese incursions into Philippine territory.
“It is not always that the Chinese got away like [they were able to] in Scarborough,” remarked a Navy officer who asked not to be identified. “Yes, those (Chinese) boats in our possession mean we can do it,” said Col Neil Estrella, spokesman of the Western Command.
Philippine and US officials in the city, however, were careful not to spin this year’s joint exercises into a muscle-flexing event against China.
“We’ve been doing this (joint military exercises) every year… this is just part of a continuing mission of the US military,” said US Marine Captain Staci Reidinger, currently serving as the Exercise Balikatan 2012-Palawan US Forces Public Affairs Officer.
Nearly a thousand troops have built more school buildings and conducted more medical assistance activities in Palawan compared to previous years.
“We’re not here scouting out sites (for basing). I understand this seems to be a popular speculation but we’re not hunting out sites,” Lt Ray Ragan, a US military spokesman, said at the start of the medical missions held in impoverished Palawan communities two weeks ago.
Later in the week, both sides will simulate several crisis scenarios in the western side of Palawan facing the West Philippine Sea and the Spratlys, including a commando raid on an oil rig that has been taken over by hostile forces.
This is being introduced for the first time in the annual Balikatan exercises.
On April 26, the event will close with a mass paratroop drop in the coastal village of Inagawan facing the south China Sea.
Various groups have launched simultaneous protests Monday to denounce alleged US intervention in Philippine Affairs. – with reports from Robert Chua