Balikatan’s new focus
Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder), the annual military exercises jointly held by the United States and the Philippines, opened in Quezon City on May 8, but on a smaller scale, amid the government’s declared pivot to China and Russia. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana led the opening ceremonies of the 33rd Philippine-US Balikatan military exercises at Camp Aguinaldo.
Running up to May 19, this year’s Balikatan is a scaled-down version—involving 5,500 soldiers (from almost 10,000 last year), to include as well 80 from Australia and 20 from Japan, as well as observers from Southeast Asian countries. On the other hand, Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the exercise co-director for the United States, said American soldiers are not disappointed with the scaled-down exercises.
Definitely, the reason for the scale-down was ordered by President Duterte, who was angered by US criticism of his war on drugs. The President may be charting an independent foreign policy that presupposes that this is the last year Balikatan is held.
This year’s Balikatan will focus on humanitarian aid, disaster response and counterterrorism, unlike last year’s, which emphasized on territorial defense and highlighted fire drills based on invasion scenarios. Thus, its peculiarity does not make it any less workable and
But it’s a good thing that this year’s Balikatan has a new focus. The refocus is in line with President Duterte’s rebalance of the country’s “recalibrated” foreign policy, which veered away from the United States in favor of China and Russia.
Meanwhile, we can also assume that the defense cooperation between the Philippines and the United States is a longstanding arrangement not aimed at any particular country (e.g., China or North Korea) or group of countries.
Aside from the 80 soldiers from Australia and the 20 from Japan, 2,800 Filipino soldiers and 2,600 American troops are in this year’s exercises. In this case, we can see another alliance of quadrilateral defense security framework. This was forecasted as early as 2013, and now things are unfolding.
CARIDAD E. ULLEGUE, caridad_uoutlook.com
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