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Philippines, US to hold naval drills outside territorial seas

MANILA, Philippines, March 22 ------ For the first time in 39 years, combined naval drills in the annual Balikatan military exercises between the Philippines and the United States will be held beyond the country’s 12-nautical-mile territorial waters in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) next month. 


France will be participating in the “group sail” in international waters, where Chinese military and coast guard ships have been roaming around and blocking Philippine rotation and resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal and other features within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Australia and Japan will not be directly participating in the naval exercises, but are sending observers to the event that will see the Philippine Navy, US Navy, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), US Coast Guard alongside the French Navy. “A group (sail) is a maritime exercise and the events that take place there are a combination of division tactics, search and rescue, board and search and seizure exercises, gunnery exercises, qualifications, well deck operations, those are types of exercises so they will be moving from Point A to Point B,” Balikatan executive agent Col. Michael Logico said yesterday. “We will be utilizing the western side of Palawan, extending beyond our 12 nautical miles so this is also a new thing. We’ve done group sails before… In previous exercises, we’ve been limited to just 12 nautical miles, now we are encouraging or we are venturing outwards,” he added. 


The French Navy, Logico said, is sending a frigate for the naval drills set in the early part of the 2024 Balikatan exercises, scheduled from the third week of April to the first week of May. He added that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will have at least four ships participating in the group sail as part of freedom of navigation operations in international waters. According to him, the group sail will be carried out with or without the presence of Chinese vessels in the area because the Balikatan “is a demonstration of our combat readiness, the entire intent is to deter and if we cannot deter, we will defend, and when we defend, the objective is to win.” 


Logico, noting that the AFP is and has been shifting toward external defense as early as 2018, said the group sail will still be held within the Philippine EEZ and I believe that we have a right to be there. “The message that we want to send is that we are serious about defending our territory and we have allies. That’s basically it and the alliance is still going strong,” he added. 


Participants in next month’s Balikatan have already started to arrive in the country, Logico said, noting this year’s 39th iteration of the annual event will see the participation of some 11,000 American soldiers, support group members, government officials and even civilian contractors. On the part of the AFP, around 5,000 troops will join community assistance projects and programs like the building of classrooms and other facilities in areas like Pasuquin in Ilocos Norte, Punta Baja in Rizal, Palawan and in San Fernando, La Union in early April. “Starting April 1, we will begin with our information warfare exercise that will be held here inside Camp Aguinaldo. Officially, that is still part of Balikatan but it will happen before the opening ceremony,” Logico said. 


He said the Australian Defense Force will also be participating in the Balikatan exercises while the Japan Self Defense Force will be sending a larger observer contingent along with at least 13 other countries. Logico added this year’s joint military exercises will again involve a sinking exercise off the coast of Laoag in Ilocos Norte, where joint military forces will attack and sink an “enemy ship,” much like last year’s exercise in the waters off Zambales. 


The threat emanating from the South China Sea row has grown but the Philippines is “not poking the bear” and continues to avoid scenarios that would escalate a conflict in the disputed area, President Marcos said. Pointing out that the Philippines thinks about peace in its national interest, Marcos said it would not serve any purpose to increase tensions in the South China Sea. “The threat has grown, and since the threat has grown, we must do more to defend our territory,” the President said over Bloomberg TV. “And so maybe perhaps that’s what people are seeing… a more robust defense of our territorial rights as recognized by the international community, through international law, through the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), so we feel very close to that, we do not, we have not instigated any kind of conflict, we have not instigated any kind of confrontation,” he added. 


Asked how confident he was that the US is willing to go to war with China over disputed reefs in the South China Sea, Marcos replied: “Oh, God.” “We would like to... take a step back from that question, that is precisely what we want to avoid. We want to do everything we possibly can, together with our partners and our allies, to avoid that situation. This is not poking the bear, as it were. We are trying to do quite the opposite. We are trying to keep things... at a manageable level, to continue the dialogues, whatever they are, at every level.” 


According to Marcos, the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and its traditional ally the US would only be invoked if there is an “existential threat.” Under the treaty signed by the two countries in 1951, an armed attack on Manila’s armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, would invoke Washington’s mutual defense commitments. Pressed on what he thought was the exact meaning in practice of the US statement that the MDT now extends to all armed conflicts and armed attacks in any area of the South China Sea, Marcos said: “Perhaps an incursion, for example, to occupy, which (has) already happened, but we’re still trying to keep it peaceful.” 




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