PH and US resume Balikatan exercises amid COVID-19 pandemic

In the middle of the pandemic, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the United States military resumed their annual Balikatan exercises on Monday, April 12.

The AFP led the ceremony in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, that formally opened the 36th Balikatan Exercises (BK36-21) between the Philippine and US military that will run until April 23.

The exercises in 2020 were canceled due to the threat of COVID-19 in both countries. 

The Balikatan Exercises is an annual event held by the two countries to ensure continuous cooperation and bilateral relations. This is the fourth time the exercises were held since President Rodrigo Duterte became military commander-in-chief in 2016. 

Department of National Defense Undersecretary Cesar Yano said the 2021 Balikatan Exercises would strengthen the ties between the longtime allies.

"With this year's 36th Balikatan Exercise, we reinvigorate the friendship, partnership and alliance between the Philippines and the United States; a bilateral relationship that is founded on our shared history of espousing peace, security, and cooperation among nations," said Yano. 

The exercises will be conducted under strict health protocols. At least 736 AFP personnel will participate, while the US military has sent 225 participants. 

The 2021 exercises will include a bilateral staff exercise, close air support training, maritime security training, and humanitarian and civic assistance activities. It will be held in areas under the Northern and Southern Luzon Command. 

Both Filipino and American military men will build two classrooms and a daycare center in Plaridel, Bulacan, as well as a classroom in Atimonan and a health center in Mauban, both in Quezon province, as part of the project.

'Manifestation of imperialism'

In a statement, the League of Filipino Students (LFS), a national organization of students against imperialism, condemned the Balikatan Exercises and called it a "manifestation of imperialism" in the Philippines. 

"The League reiterates its sheer condemnation of the resumption of the Balikatan Exercises. It is no less than a symbol of murders committed by American forces, the influence of America within their local compradors in the Philippines, and, in its most outright and vile form – a manifestation of imperialism," LFS said in a statement. 

The Philippines and US had signed the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951 to commit to defend each other in the event of an armed attack by a hostile party.

The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), meanwhile, allows the presence of US troops in the Philippines even after the Senate rejected the extension of military bases in 1991. 

Duterte had previously threatened to scrap war games between the US and Philippine militaries, saying he wanted to have an independent foreign policy free from US influence. (TIMELINE: Duterte's threats to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement)

Duterte unilaterally cancelled the VFA in 2020 after an ally was denied a US visa by the US government. However, this abrogation was delayed twice and is currently in effect as of today. 

In February, the Philippines and US started talks on the future of the VFA. Both countries have until August 2021 to finalize a new deal. – Rappler.com