Defence/Security

Philippines, U.S. resume major annual military exercise

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Troops from the Philippines and the United States launched a major annual bilateral training exercise on Monday that was canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Balikatan (or shoulder to shoulder) exercises began with a simple ceremony at the Philippine military headquarters.

The joint training took place as Manila and Washington stepped up cooperation amid concerns over Chinese ships stationed in the Whitsun Reef in the disputed South China Sea.

Armed Forces Chief Cirilito Sobejana said this year’s Balikatan involved only 1,700 troops – 700 from the United States and 1,000 from the Philippines.

About 7,500 troops participated in the last exercise in 2019 – 4,000 on the Filipino side and 3,500 on the US side.

The Philippine Department of Defense has said that due to the pandemic, this year’s exercise was “a much smaller version.”

The Balikatan was intended to improve the interoperability of US and Philippine forces in home defense, counterterrorism and humanitarian and disaster response.

After Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte suspended the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Washington in February last year, it was believed that the 2020 exercises would be the last.

The VFA, signed in 1998, authorizes the presence of American troops in the country for the exercises.

However, Duterte has since suspended the termination notice twice.

In a phone call Sunday, Manila and Washington Secretaries of Defense Delfin Lorenzana and Lloyd Austin reiterated the importance of the VFA and discussed cooperation in the face of challenges posed by China’s maritime activities.

(NAN)

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