MANILA, Philippines – As China steps up its claim over the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), the Philippines braces for its expanded war games with the United States on Monday, April 20.
For 10 days, thousands of Filipino and American troops will engage in military exercises to boost their capacity to maintain peace and security.
Compared to past war games, the number of participants has doubled this year.
In an interview with state-run dzRB on Sunday, April 19, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr stressed that this year's Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) war games don't specifically target China.
He pointed out that these have been done annually since 1951 under the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US.
"Kung nagkataon na sa kasalukuyan ay mayroong mga partikular na usapin o hamon, ito ay ginagampanan pa rin bilang bahagi ng layunin na maging mataas ang kahandaan ng dalawang bansa at ganap ‘yung paghahanda para makatugon sa ano mang umiiral na hamon," Coloma explained.
(If by chance, the current situation includes a specific challenge or problem, Balikatan is still done to prepare the two countries to respond to any looming problem.)
Disaster preparedness, too
This year's war games will also feature additional exercises for disaster preparedness and response efforts, Coloma said.
The Filipino and American troops will do these in line with huge natural disasters that hit the Philippines, such as Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in November 2013.
"Ang kahandaan sa paglulunsad ng agarang pagtugon sa mga krisis bunsod ng mga kalamidad ay isa ring mahalagang aspeto ng kooperasyon," Coloma said. (Preparing to respond immediately to natural disasters is an important aspect of cooperation.)
The Balikatan participants will help build school buildings and deliver social services to residents of the nearby communities, Coloma said. They will also conduct seminars to train first responders for disasters.
The war games come as the Philippines seeks more US military and diplomatic support to fend off China's increasing forcefulness.
In an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) last week, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the two militaries operating side-by-side should offer a "deterrent aspect to any entity, be it a country or Islamic radicals."
Aquino insisted the Balikatan war games starting on Monday were not directed at China, pointing out they were annual exercises, but he discussed at length the Philippines' reliance on the United States. (READ: Nearly 7,000 US soldiers in games led by West PH Sea commander)
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario also said last week the Philippines planned to ask Washington for extra help in containing China. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com