Philippine and U.S. troops will hold a wide-range set of joint drills next month in flashpoint locations that could be strategically vital in potential conflict with China.
The Balikatan (“Shoulder to Shoulder”) exercises, to be held from April 11-28, are believed to the largest edition of the joint drills ever held between the two longtime allies, and come as the Biden administration has been trying to roll back moves in recent years by Manila to move closer to Beijing.
A spokesman from the Philippine armed forces told local press outlets that the drills will include some 12,000 American troops, some 5,500 local soldiers and around 100 Australians. Observers from Japan’s Self Defense Forces will also be present.
The drills will include coastal defense, cyber defense and special-forces operations. According to Japanese press reports, American HIMARS precision multi-launch missiles systems will be deployed and — for the first time — the drills will feature live-fire naval exercises in the South China Sea.
The sea, one of the world’s most heavily trafficked commercial waterways, has emerged as a prime arena of competition between China, the U.S. and its allies. The Philippines is just one of a number of smaller countries in the region that have challenged Beijing’s aggressive maritime territorial claims in the region and the construction of new artificial islands that serve as forward Chinese military outposts.
Asked if the drills might irk China, Philippine Col. Michael Logico responded, “Every country has the absolute and inalienable right to exercise within our territory. We have the absolute, inalienable right to defend our territory.”
Among the locations for the drills are Palawan, in the Philippine archipelago’s west, and Luzon, in the north.
Palawan is close to the newly established Chinese air naval bases that include harbors, runways, bunkers and underground munitions storage facilities in Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.
The Chinese-occupied Spratlys are claimed by multiple nations, including Taiwan and the Philippines. Manila won a sweeping legal victory over China at an arbitration tribunal established under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea that rejected Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims.
China rejected the ruling, and given Beijing’s overwhelming naval advantage, Manila has been unable to enforce its case.
The Balikatan training sites appear to be strategically chosen: Palawan is also an ideal interdiction base for regional shipping, while Luzon commands the strategic Luzon Strait separating the Philippines and Taiwan. The channel is a key entry point to and from the open Pacific for Chinese warships.
Moreover, northern Luzon is located near the wide beaches of southern Taiwan — critical locations for any prospective Chinese amphibious invasion force. One of the Balikatan drills will involve helicopter landings on Calayan Island, which lies off the northern tip of Luzon, Japanese media stated.
One leading analyst said the ability to deploy American forces on Philippine soil in a crisis with China in either the South China Sea or over Taiwan is critical for Pentagon planners.
“The term is ‘dispersed lethality’ – an old term for a new battle,” said Alex Neill, a fellow of the Pacific Forum think tank. “It is all about projecting power into a space to deny that battlespace.”
Philippine islands would form ideal bases for HIMARs and land-launched cruise missiles, the Singapore-based Mr. Neill, who has studied regional defense, added.
Wednesday’s announcement of drills forms part of a wider trend: the rejuvenation of the Manila-Washington alliance under President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos. Mr. Marcos took power in 2022, replacing the populist and often anti-U.S. President Rodrigo Duterte, and has taken several steps to re-balance his country’s relations with China and the U.S.
The president, the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has surprised many with his willingness to work with Washington and challenge China’s ambitions in the region. In a widely noted speech to the troops last month, Mr. Marcos said the mission of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the APF, had to evolve as the dynamic in the region have been altered.
“For many, many years, we were able to maintain that peace and maintain that understanding with all of our neighbors,” Mr. Marcos said Feb. 28. “Now things have begun to change and we must adjust accordingly.”
He did not explicitly single out China, but added pointedly, “We still have to fight for the rights of every Filipino because the Philippines is a sovereign nation and the Philippines has a functioning government.”
The just-announced drills are “indicative of Marcos’ resolve to demonstrate Philippine sovereignty,” said Mr. Neill. “I’d guess there is alarm in the Philippine establishment about a Taiwan Strait conflagration and a resolve to dial back what you might call the China appeasement of Duterte.”
This year, Manila and Washington have agreed to restart joint patrols in the South China Sea and visiting Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin secured a pledge from the Marcos government to grant U.S. troops rotating access to another four new military bases — making a total of nine — in the Philippines.
Though the locations of those bases have not been revealed, there has been speculation that they will include sites in Luzon and Palawan.