In a major escalation of war games near China, the armed forces of the Philippines and US troops are holding the largest annual Balikatan military exercises in history. From 11 to 28 April, 12,200 US military personnel, 5,400 Philippine forces and 111 Australian troops are taking part in the drills. Balikatan—meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Tagalog, the national language—will be the first time Philippine and US forces engage in live-fire exercises at sea.
The joint operations come just weeks after the Philippine government expanded US military access to nine bases in the country. Under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in 2014, the US military has access to Philippine bases for joint training, pre-positioning of equipment and building of facilities.
On 3 April, the Philippines announced the locations of four additional sites, nearly doubling the US military’s prospective footprint in the archipelago. The Philippines is a key US ally, and the largest recipient of US military assistance, equipment and training in South-East Asia.
Of the four new EDCA sites, three are in northern Luzon, just 400 kilometres from Taiwan, while one is in Palawan, near the disputed Spratly Islands.
In opposition to the US military presence, about 7,000 people gathered in Cagayan, a province in Luzon, in a 17 April rally organised by Prayer for Peace Cagayan Movement.
Clarita Lunas, retired regional supervisor from the Department of Education, told media that the prayer rally was organised after a naval base in Santa Ana and the Lal-lo Airport were selected as locations for the US military to stock weapons and equipment. Governor Manuel Mamba remarked at the prayer gathering that EDCA “is just war” amid rising tensions between China and Taiwan, according to the Manila Standard.
“We want Cagayan to be the centre of agro-industrial hubs in the international port, not the centre of foreign military bases whose clear objective is to enable war between America and China”, he said.
There were also smaller protests in the capital, Manila, outside of the US embassy on the first night of Balikatan exercises. “We are against this, firstly, on the basis that the Balikatan exercises are disastrous for our citizens and the country”, an organiser of the protest, the League of Filipino Students national president, told 24 Oras, a national TV news program.
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