MANILA, Philippines – Thousands of Filipino and American soldiers stand together once again.
On Monday, April 1, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the United States Armed Forces opened the 2019 Balikatan Exercises in the Tejeros Hall of Camp Aguinaldo.
Balikatan, which means shoulder-to-shoulder, is the yearly joint exercises of the militiaries of the two old allies to renew its their ties and train together in the field to prepare for possible future conflicts. Balikatan 2019 is the 35th installment of the exercises. The exercises this year mark one of the biggest in the project's history, involving 4,000 Filipino, 3,500 American, and 50 Australian soldiers.
“The goal of such is to enhance both militaries’ employment of forces and assistance in the event of crises that threaten the safety and security of the nation,” said Lieutenant General Gilbert Gapay, the Philippines’ exercise director.
It will last up until April 12, and will consist of the following activities:
Balikatan 2019 opens in Camp Aguinaldo. It will last up to April 12. @rapplerdotcom pic.twitter.com/DOZ4Y6kdIX — Rambo Talabong (@rambotalabong) April 1, 2019
During the exercise period, Filipino and US soldiers will also conduct outreach programs in the island region of Luzon. Australian soldiers will also join the exercises.
The exercises come at a shaky time in the two countries’ relations. Ever since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in July 2016, the Philippines has been pursuing an independent foreign policy, which saw critical rhetoric against the US and warmer ties with Asian superpower China.
With China’s continuously expanding military claims in the South China Sea, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has called for a review of the two countries’ mutual defense treaty—the only defense treaty that the Philippines keeps.
But during the opening of the event, it was made clear that despite the strains in relations, Philippine and American soldiers will continue to fight together. (READ: Despite new friends, Philippines sticks it out with US in 2018)
Reiterating the message of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to the Philippines on March 1, US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim said, “The return of the Balangiga bells and Secretary Pompeo's unambiguous clarification regarding the mutual defense treaty demonstrate our deep commitment to our allies.”
“As friends, partners, and allies, we're not only protecting our own shared security, but also contirbuting greatly to the stability and prosperity throughout the Indo-Paciific region. All of you are key players in this, and I look forward to seeing the collaboration in the next few weeks,” Kim added. – Rappler.com
Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.