5,500 PH, US troops joining Balikatan next month

Posted at 04/10/14 2:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Amid the territorial row over the West Philippine Sea, the Balikatan exercises between the Philippines and the United States will start on May 5.

Lt. Annaleah Cazcarro, public affairs officer for the exercise, said around 3,000 Filipino soldiers and 2,500 US military personnel would join the drills to be held in various sites nationwide.

“Balikatan is a long-standing military activity between the US and Philippine militaries. This year’s Balikatan strengthens the relationship between the two countries. They learn from us and we learn from them,” she told reporters yesterday.

Cazcarro said the exercises have nothing to do with the dispute over the West Philippine Sea. “Balikatan has been planned before. They have no relationship,” she said.

Balikatan 2014, the 30th iteration of the bilateral exercise, will be held until May 16 and will focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

A maritime surveillance equipment demonstration will be conducted at the Naval Education and Training Command in San Antonio, Zambales.

Drills will also be held at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Clark Air Base in Pampanga, Marine Base Ternate in Cavite and Crow Valley in Tarlac.

Participating troops will also hold humanitarian assistance and disaster response staff exercises in Puerto Princesa City in Palawan.

Cazcarro said development projects would also be conducted in Legazpi City and in Tacloban City.

Greater access

Meanwhile, talks on a proposed deal granting American troops greater access to military bases in the country resume today.

The 8th round of talks on enhanced defense cooperation will be held at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City for two days. The negotiations will resume as the government prepares for the April 27 visit of US President Barack Obama.

It will be the first meeting of the two panels since the Philippines filed a written argument to the United Nations arbitral tribunal hearing its case against China for the latter’s excessive territorial claims.

The Philippines and the US have agreed to strengthen their defense ties amid China’s aggressive acts in the West Philippine Sea.

Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino, chairman of the Philippine panel, said they are looking forward to “productive discussions” with their US counterparts.

He stressed the “vital importance” of increasing capabilities to respond to natural and man-made calamities.

“Calamities such as Typhoon Yolanda as well as the ongoing search for the Malaysia Airlines plane underscore that friendly armed forces are in a unique and crucial position to provide timely responses in these events,” Batino said in a statement.

“Time is of the essence in these situations and, as often the first responders, friendly armed forces can provide much-needed human, technical and equipment assistance and support for the success of those efforts,” he added.

Batino said the Philippines and the US recognize this “added key dimension to this updated framework of defense cooperation” and are working together for closer partnership to ensure timely and adequate humanitarian assistance and disaster relief responses.

He said the defense deal would also benefit the modernization of the Philippine military and provide economic opportunities through the purchase of local goods by the US.

The 7th round of talks was held from March 24 to 26 also in Camp Aguinaldo.

Key details of the discussions were kept under wraps, but Philippine panel members said negotiators have made “further progress on realizing their mutual commitment to strengthen individual and collective defense.”

US vows support

The US vowed to defend the Philippines in times of threats or natural disasters even as it stressed the value of achieving global peace and stability through peaceful means and the rule of law.

“As treaty allies, when the Philippines faces threats or natural disasters, so do we,” US Ambassador Philip Goldberg said in a speech during the celebration of Araw ng Kagitingan at Mt. Samat in Pilar, Bataan, which was also attended by Japanese Ambassador Toshinao Urabe.

“We can and will continue to work together, shoulder-to-shoulder, to improve each other’s militaries and our nations as a whole. As Typhoon Yolanda has demonstrated, when our nations’ soldiers and civilians work together, we are prepared to react and respond to any disaster,” he said.

“We are thankful that in the end, peace reached our lands – the Philippines, Japan and the United States. Each step we make today toward further peace and prosperity, democracy, and the rule of law is a way to honor their footsteps on this soil so long ago,” he added.

He said the gallantry of those who fought for freedom must never be forgotten, and their story should be imparted to the young.

He said the fate of over 78,00 men and women who were forced to endure the 140-kilometer Bataan Death March would “forever be etched in the two countries’ shared history.” – With Aurea Calica