MANILA -- The 29th Balikatan exercises formally opened Friday morning at the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Commissioned Officers Club, with top Filipino and US government and military officials attending the event amid the heightening tension in Korea.
Among the speakers were Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Albert del Rosario, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr., AFP chief of staff General Emmanuel Bautista, and exercise directors Major General Virgilio Domingo and Brigadier General Richard Simcock II.
Domingo and Simcock both denied that the Balikatan exercises have something to do with the growing tension in North and South Korea.
Bautista said, together with the DFA, they already have contingency plans for the 40,000 Filipinos living in South Korea should the conflict escalate into war.
The two exercise directors also said the Balikatan has been going on for a long time and is focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
Thomas, likewise, said the focus of the Balikatan exercises are the joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief military training in Central Luzon, adding that 90 percent of the world's disasters happen in the Asia Pacific.
He cited the case of typhoon "Pablo" wherein Filipino and American soldiers helped each other in delivering humanitarian assistance.
Domingo and Simcock also said the squadron of F18 Hornets which will join the exercises is part of the exposure of Philippine pilots to the F18s.
Meanwhile, del Rosario said the Balikatan exercises symbolize the strong relationship of the Philippines with the US.
He added that the exercises will help save a lot of money for the training expenses of the AFP.
Del Rosario also said he is hoping that the AFP will have the capacity to defend the country, noting that there is a need to secure and protect the borders and territorial integrity of the Philippines.
Meantime, Thomas again apologized for the Tubbataha incident and said that they will be working with the Philippine government to rehabilitate the reef. He added they will pay for the damages to the reef.