The annual Balikatan military exercises between the United States and the Philippines recently roared to a close, showcasing not just muscle but a strategic makeover aimed at deterring potential threats in the South China Sea region, where tensions simmer.

New sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) are taking center stage, and the US is pouring resources into upgrading Philippine defenses. This deepens the alliance and sends a clear message of deterrence in a region where tensions simmer.

EDCA, signed in 2014, allows the US to invest in infrastructure development at designated Philippine military sites and deploy troops on a rotational basis.

This year’s Balikatan drills, which ran from April 22 to May 9, marked the first large-scale use of three of the four new EDCA sites approved in 2023, signifying a strategic shift in US-Philippine military cooperation.

Spotlight on Strategic Locations

Balabac Island, a strategically located island south of Palawan in the Philippines, emerged as a focal point during the exercises.

The drills simulated the defense of the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea, a contested region where China has been increasingly assertive.

Balikatan scenarios saw the Philippine military practice defending against potential incursions, with the US providing logistical and technical support. This focus on the South China Sea reflects the growing tensions in the region and the importance of the Philippines’ territorial integrity.

Another crucial new EDCA site, La-Lo Airport (also known as Cagayan North International Airport) in north-central Luzon, played a significant role in air operations during Balikatan.