The United States and the Philippines launched the start of Balikatan 22, an annual joint military exercise, last Monday. This is the 37th iteration of the event, with this year having the largest number of participants in seven years.

“Balikatan is a critical opportunity to work shoulder-to-shoulder with our Philippine allies toward a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific that is more connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient,’ as our Indo-Pacific Strategy calls for. The U.S. is proud to continue our participation in this long-standing exercise,” U.S. Embassy in the Philippines Chargé d’Affaires ad interim Heather Variava said.

About 8,900 service members, 3,800 from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and 5,100 from the US Armed Forces, are scheduled to train together in various military and humanitarian operations. The event is hosted by the Philippines and is set to utilize various locations across the country. The exercises are scheduled to run for two weeks until April 8.

The Opening Ceremony of Balikatan 2022 at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines (Photograph by Lance Cpl. Jonathan Willcox via Exercise Balikatan). Source: https://www.facebook.com/exercisebalikatan/posts/279574037691067
The Opening Ceremony of Balikatan 2022 at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Lance Cpl. Jonathan Willcox via Exercise Balikatan|Facebook)

“During Balikatan, the U.S. military and AFP will train together to expand and advance shared tactics, techniques, and procedures that strengthen our response capabilities and readiness for real-world challenges,” 3rd Marine Division Commanding General, Maj. Gen. Jay Bargeron said.

“Balikatan” in Filipino means “shoulder to shoulder” and has been a yearly exercise since 1991 after the US bases in the Philippines, namely the two large military facilities at Subic Bay Port and Clark Air Base, were handed over to the Philippine government. The only time these exercises were canceled was in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These exercises come in the backdrop of a looming Chinese threat in the Pacific, where the Chinese have militarized several islands in the South China Sea. They have also increased aggression towards Taiwan amidst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which saw the largest number of Chinese aircraft flying in Taiwan’s ADIZ. Exercises like the Balikatan train Filipinos and Americans alike to work together if a crisis does arise in the Indo-Pacific.

Events Held so Far

One of the highlights of the exercise is the Combined Arms Live-Fire Exercise (CALFEX) which was held last Wednesday at Col. Ernesto Ravina Air Base in Tarlac, Philippines.

“We conducted the CALFEX to improve our interoperability during combined and joint operations. This is one way of ensuring that we can operate jointly with our allies. This also serves as an opportunity for us as we are procuring new equipment; we are able to test our new weapons and armaments,” AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Andres Centino said.

Among the participants were the Philippine Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team and several US Armed Forces infantry brigade combat teams. The exercise also featured the Philippine Air Force’s newly acquired Embraer A-29B “Super Tucano” strike aircraft and the US Army’s high mobility artillery rocket system, among others.

“The complex live-fire event was executed through the ground maneuver, artillery, mortars, and air elements to seize an enemy objective. Supporting air and ground combat elements worked together to provide indirect and suppressing fire to allow the main ground combat element to advance and destroy the notional enemy,” Chief of the AFP Public Affairs Office Col. Jorry Baclor said. He noted that around 500 combined service members took part in the event.

Another 251 military personnel from the two militaries attended a free-falling exercise in Nueva Ecija last March 27. The event, called the “Balikatan Friendship Jump,” aimed to enhance the Special Operation Forces’ airborne capabilities of the two nations.

“The 51 Philippine and US Military Free Fallers and 200 Static-Line Airborne parachuted towards the Drop Zone Royce located at Barangay Mapalad, Santa Rosa, Nueva Ecija,” Baclor said.

US and Filipino soldiers conduct a friendship jump as part of the Balikatan exercises (Exercise Balikatan). Source: https://www.facebook.com/exercisebalikatan/posts/280713310910473
US and Filipino soldiers conduct a friendship jump as part of the Balikatan exercises (U.S. Army Photo by SPC Joshua Oller/28th Public Affairs Detachment via Exercise Balikatan|Facebook)

Jumpers dropped from two US MC-130 aircraft under the watch of civilian and military observers. Baclor added that “aside from the jump, the activity was also highlighted by wing exchange and meaningful sharing of experiences by the participants.”

In the mountainous regions of the Philippines in Rizal, Cagayan, troops are building classrooms as part of the Engineering Action Project (ENCAP) of this year’s event. The soldiers built 22.9 feet (7 meters) by 52.5 feet (16 meters) classrooms to provide more facilities for children in these distant areas.

“The construction team is composed of soldiers from the 18th Civil Engineer Group, 15th Medical Group IDMT, and Philippine Air Force,” according to Col. Baclor.

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Resurging Alliance

The Balikatan exercise is arguably one of the most tangible manifestations of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and the Philippines, wherein the two countries commit to come in defense of one another in the event of an attack.

“Balikatan 22 coincides with the 75th anniversary of U.S.-Philippine security cooperation and a shared commitment to promoting peace,” said Maj. Gen. Bargeron. “Our alliance remains a key source of strength and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

The alliance took a downturn during the start of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, who introduced a shift in the country’s foreign policy to establish closer ties with China. He set aside a crucial win of the Philippines against China at The Hague over the latter’s claims on disputed territory in the South China Sea through China’s so-called nine-dash-line. He also significantly scaled back the deployment and events in the yearly Balikatan exercises from 2017 to 2019. He also hinted at scrapping the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which outlined the rules for the deployment of US troops in the Philippines.

Just very recently, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte invoked the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty to express his solidarity and cooperation in Washington following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

He expressed, through Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel del Gallego Romualdez, that he was ready to make Philippine bases and facilities available to the States if “push comes to shove.” These bases are likely those that were mentioned beforehand as these were already operated by the US in the 90s.

Despite this announcement, Duterte is set to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 8. He confirmed this scheduled call while at an event in Lapu-Lapu City in the Philippines. However, he did not indicate what the call was for. He also mentioned the ongoing invasion in Ukraine and gave his thoughts.

“When Russia gets hit by a nuclear missile or Russia is the first to use one, there’s going to be a serious trouble. And China will not just sit idly there. It will also hit back. It will get Taiwan. The problem is, the Philippines will be affected if there’s a full-scale war because there are Americans here,” he said.