PH, U.S. forces play up friendship amid calls for defense treaty review

MANILA, Philippines – Mission complete.

On Friday, April 12, the 35th Balikatan exercises of the Philippines and the United States officially closed with military officials highlighting the friendship between the two forces amid renewed calls to review their  Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

In a speech, Armed Forces chief Lieutenant General Benjamin Madrigal Jr credited the 2019 Balikatan’s success to the US and Philippines' “unwavering commitment” to learn the best from one another.

“All these accomplishment were made possible through our unwavering commitment to our aspirations and through our willingness to learn from each other, to become better each time. Our differences were never a hindrance…. It became the bridge that connected us to become one, to work and think as one,” Madrigal said.

“This has also bolstered the strong bond between our countries as we plan, work, and operate side by side and shoulder to shoulder in our joint undertakings,” he added.

Balikatan, which means shoulder-to-shoulder in Filipino, is the annual military training exercises aimed at making sure Philippine and US militaries can work jointly in the event the two countries need to invoke the MDT, which binds them to come to each another's defense if theirs sovereignty is threatened.

COMBINED EXERCISE. Philippine and American soldier unite as they conducts the amphibious exercises during the at Naval Education Training Command in Zambales on 11 April 2019. Photo by Lito Borras/Rappler

COMBINED EXERCISE. Philippine and American soldier unite as they conducts the amphibious exercises during the at Naval Education Training Command in Zambales on 11 April 2019.

Photo by Lito Borras/Rappler

In the exercise’s opening ceremony Monday, April 1, the Philippines' Department of National Defense (DND) renewed its call for the review of the MDT between the long-allied countries. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said he saw it fit to review the defense treaty because of its "vagueness."

Despite this, DND Undersecretary Cardozo Luna earlier said the trust remained between the two partners. He echoed this once more as the year’s exercises came to a close. He said it was proof the Philippines and United States were committed to their alliance.

“Our troops have demonstrated yet again that the Philippines and the Unites States will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in response to the evolving security challenges…. Indeed, the Balikatan is not just a fulfilment of our obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty, but a commitment to solidify and strengthen the friendship of our nations,” Luna said.

The 12-day military exercises saw over 7,500 soldiers take part in training meant to prepare them for possible future conflict. It consisted of humanitarian activities and military exercises such as counterterrorism training, live-fire trainingamphibious operations, and bilateral planning, among others.

ASSAULT. PH and US simulate an attack during their live-fire exercise at the Colonel Ernesto Ravina Air Base in Tarlac. Photo by Rambo Talabong/Rappler

ASSAULT. PH and US simulate an attack during their live-fire exercise at the Colonel Ernesto Ravina Air Base in Tarlac.

Photo by Rambo Talabong/Rappler

The exercises focused on improving interoperability between US and Philippine forces so both forces would grow familiar with the way each one moves and communicates on the battle field.

But for Lieutenant General Eric Smith, US Commanding General of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, American troops come not just to train and improve in combat.

American forces also come, Smith said, “because we like you [and] we hope you like us right back.”

Meanwhile, US Ambassador Kim Sung likewise aimed the spotlight on the decades-old friendship between the two countries, saying while the exercises were now over, the US would continue to work towards ensuring a “free and open” region.

“Even as we celebrate the closing of Balikatan 2019, we remember that throughout the year, our forces will continue to work side by side, reinforcing our enduring commitment to mutual defense in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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