Judging by this year’s version of the US-Philippine joint military exercises, Balikatan 2016 has taken a new direction, courtesy of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
From the declared purpose, since 2002, of “enhancing interoperability” between the two allied armed forces, Balikatan is now being placed by the American side squarely within the “context of existing tension” in the South China Sea, and conceptualized as a “mission rehearsal.”
This sounds like we Filipinos are being taken down a slippery slope – risking further loss of our national sovereignty, and control over our foreign relations. These changes are being undertaken in pursuit of America’s geopolitical interests and objectives. But what about Philippine national interest and security? Whatever benefits the country may derive from EDCA (such as “modernization” of the AFP) couldn’t compensate for the further derogation of our national sovereignty.
Let’s see how these changes would play out, unless after the May 9 presidential elections a new administration might decide to review the EDCA and the long-festering inequitable Phl-US relations.
Held from April 4 to 15, Balikatan 2016 involved the participation of 5,000 US troops and 3,500 Filipino soldiers – an odd situation where the “trainors” greatly outnumbered the “trainees.” As a new feature to demonstrate its offensive military capability, the US deployed – in a simulated assault on an imaginary enemy territory – its High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars), which fired six 3,000-km-range missiles from Crow Valley in Capas, Tarlac With that range, said the top US military war-game director, Lt. Gen. John Toolan, the missiles could hit vessels far from the Philippine landmass.
For the first time, a US defense secretary came to observe the exercises and make important announcements of America’s intentions. Ashton Carter spoke at the closing ceremonies at Camp Aguinaldo. Along with his counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin, and AFP chief Gen. Hernando Iriberri, he took a US aircraft from Villamor Air Base to Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan and from there flew in a US military helicopter to the USS John Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier stationary in the West Philippine Sea.
In speeches at Malacanang, Camp Aguinaldo, and aboard the aircraft carrier, Carter made the following statements and announcements:
• “What’s new is not an American carrier in this region. What’s new is the context of tension [that] exists which we want to reduce.”
(Greater US military engagement in Asia-Pacific, he said, responds to China’s aggressive actions in asserting its claims over almost all of the South China Sea since 2012, including the Panatag / Scarborough shoal, which is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The fact, however, is that as far back as January 2011 the Obama administration already announced its military “pivot to Asia” policy – designed to confront China’s rise as the region’s economic and military power.)
• Joint US-Philippine maritime patrols in the SCS began in March. The objective was to “fulfil our priority to develop our maritime security and domain awareness,” and to “continue to help build our interoperability and improve the Philippine Navy…”
• Three hundred American troops, including Air Force commandos, with combat aircraft and helicopters, would remain here until the end of April (to be replaced by a rotation of troops and aircraft thereafter). The objective is to “lay the foundation for joint air patrol to complement ongoing maritime patrol [in the SCS].” The combat aircraft would consist of five A-10C Thunderbolt II ground assault planes; three HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters; and one MG-130H special operations plane.
• A US command and control unit would also remain for continued training.
Carter said that US military-to-military activities would entail a broad range of actions. “From the American point of view,” he emphasized, “our alliance covers all of the Philippine territory.”
Commenting on Carter’s claim of US intent to reduce the tension in the SCS by all these displays of military prowess, a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial said:
“This is rather like putting a gun on the table as people around that table raise their voices in argument. It could work and prevent the intense argument from spiralling out of control – or it could fail and raise both the stakes and the risks.” The editorial ends with this sound advice:
“It’s well past for the key players in the region to help create the conditions that will allow the Chinese to save face on the (SCS) issue; American power projection only stokes the fire of nationalism that is forging the new future of the Chinese Communist Party. At the same time, the (US) must find another way to reassure its allies in the region of its support, without highlighting its military capability. Only then can the context of tension find an easing.”
Meantime, the Stars and Stripes came out with an article on April 12 on Balikatan 2016, written by Wyatt Olson. It says: “On paper Balikatan might be called an exercise. but the Marine general leading the training [Gen. Toolan] prefers to think of it more as a mission rehearsal.” Olsen further observes that previous joint exercises involved a large force converging on one point. “But this year,” he notes, “the drills focused on so-called distributed ops, with small operations far flung across the archipelago.”
Picking up from these disclosures, a Business Mirror editorial asked: “What might be the ‘mission’ that a joint team of Filipino and American military be involved in?” Further, it urged the Philippine government to answer the bigger question: “What are the specific limitations on the US military with its rules of engagement while assisting the Philippine military?”
This question was first raised in 2002, yet no satisfactory answer has been provided until now.
Published in the Philippine Star
April 23, 2016