No bells and whistles as Philippines, U.S. hold Balikatan

AURORA, Philippines – It was an odd command to hear as a landing craft utility boat carrying Filipino soldiers was about to dock onto the sandy shores of Casiguran town for military exercises between the Philippines and the United States.

"Lakad, wag kayong tumakbo (Walk, don't run)!" said a commander, one of the many Philippine Marines stationed aboard the BRP Tarlac.

There was no need to be on guard, after all.

The military drills in Casiguran, Aurora were meant to simulate a joint response to the aftermath of a catastrophic typhoon or earthquake – not a country invasion, as in the previous year.

On Monday, May 15, the two militaries staged a Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Response (HADR) exercise in the disaster-prone coastal town of Casiguran, one of the highlights in this year's Balikatan exercises.

The joint drills, a yearly tradition of the two allies, are aimed at strengthening coordination in times of distress.

But this year, the distress came months before the scheduled exercises, after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in October 2016 said there would be no war games during his term. He also threatened to "forget" an existing defense agreement that would expand American military presence in the Philippines.

Duterte was eventually convinced to let the Balikatan continue, but with major changes. The Balikatan this year does not include an exercise to counter an invader on Philippine shores – a potentially touchy issue given the dispute between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).

What downsizing?

Even if this year's exercises only involve two-thirds the American troops as last time, and only two Philippine area commands instead of 4, military and government officials from both countries insisted there was no downsizing at all.

Up to 2,600 American soldiers are in the Philippines for the Balikatan with more than 2,800 Filipino military men and women.

"I'd like to correct that impression. We have not downsized," said Brigadier General Restituto Padilla, spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), in an interview on the sidelines of the disaster response exercise.

"Same thing. There was no direction to downsize. Nobody told us that there had to be fewer people, there had to be smaller exercises," echoed US Marines Brigadier General John Jansen.

A Philippine government official insisted the same thing.

"Did we downsize?" quipped the Philippine foreign department's Cesar Ramboanga, executive director of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement, when asked in a separate chance interview.

He added: "Of course, this year we're stressing the importance of humanitarian assistance and disaster response, so we adjust to that. You don't just dump all the troops there."

Disaster response exercises were also held in Eastern Samar, Isabela, Cagayan, and Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija. In Casiguran, American troops conducted first aid seminars for locals as well. 

Duterte has promised to forge an "independent foreign policy" that sees the country moving away from the US and closer to China and Russia. As the Balikatan exercises were taking place, Duterte was in China for the forum promoting the Asian powerhouse's massive economic plan.

"What we do as a military is always dictated by guidance from our political leaders and we comply with that, and I believe the US can also speak the same way," explained Padilla, expounding on the 2017 Balikatan setup.

Ramboanga downplayed any effect Duterte's rhetoric against the US may have on the long-standing relationship between the two countries.

"That's the president. So we have to adjust to our new president because he declared that we'd have an independent foreign policy. And it's very acceptable among Filipinos, isn't it?" – Rappler.com