Only 1,000 troops join scaled-down Balikatan
MANILA, Philippines — Officials of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the United States military discussed on Monday measures to respond to breaches in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as the 36th Balikatan exercises this year kicked off with fewer servicemen and drills.
AFP spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, the director of the exercises, said, “This year, observing stringent health protocol requirements and reduced number of participants, this erstwhile annual event pushes through with fewer training events that will not entail face-to-face engagement.”
The exercises were canceled last year amid the pandemic that forced a lockdown on the country beginning March.
Also because of the health crisis, media coverage of the exercises will not be allowed.
Monday’s opening rites at the AFP headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo was attended by the AFP chief of staff, Gen. Cirilito Sobejana; Defense Undersecretary Cesar Yano; US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires John Law; Joint US Military Assistance Group chief and US Defense Attaché Col. Stephen Ma; and Col. Aaron Brunk of the US 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force.
In his speech, Law said: “Joint exercises like Balikatan demonstrate our shared commitment to peace and stability and the adaptability of US and Philippine forces. The United States will continue to seek ways, even during the pandemic, to strengthen our security cooperation.”
There are 736 participants from the AFP and 225 from the US military, Arevalo said.
“Against this backdrop and these challenges notwithstanding, the decrease is only in terms of number and never in the participating nations’ passion and desire to meet the steep objectives set forth in every exercise,” he said.
Brunk said “By training together, our militaries build upon each other and strengthen each other… May this exercise and this experience in the next couple of weeks add value to our partnership and our friendship.”
The exercises were not supposed to push through, after the Philippines, in February last year, sent the US a notice to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) by August. This notice, however, was shelved in June.
In December last year, President Duterte threatened anew to scrap the VFA unless the United States supplied the Philippines with its COVID-19 vaccines.
Following the opening rites of Balikatan, Sobejana held a meeting with Ma on “how the Philippine and the United States armed forces can manage and respond to the situation in the Philippine EEZ,” Arevalo said.
The Balikatan exercises will be held in select sites in Luzon until April 23, and will include a bilateral staff exercise, close air support training, subject matter exchanges, maritime security training, and humanitarian and civic assistance activities.
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