12,200 US soldiers arrive for ‘biggest ever’ Balikatan in West Philippine Sea

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Around 12,200 US soldiers will arrive in the Philippines starting Tuesday in what could be the biggest war games yet between the two allies amid renewed tension in the Taiwan Strait and the continuing Chinese military island-building activities in the South China Sea (SCS).

Balikatan 2023 will be participated by around 17,600 Filipino and American soldiers, the US Embassy said in a statement. A third of the participants—5,400—are Filipino soldiers from all branches of service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines—the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Col. Michael Logico, spokesperson of the Balikatan, said the war games will be conducted in various parts of the country, including the West Philippine Sea (WPS) off the island of Palawan and the Zambales Peninsula.

“Balikatan,” a Filipino term for “shoulder-to-shoulder” or carrying each other’s load, is the “largest iteration of the Balikatan to date,” the Embassy said.

It’s being held annually to enable the militaries to train together, test interoperability and readiness in the event both allies would need to defend when one is attacked by another state or non-state aggressor.

Live fire event will be conducted off San Antonio, Zambales, near the Philippine Navy’s Naval Education and Training Command. The naval station used to be a communications facility of the US military inside the former US naval base in Subic.

San Antonio is 254 kilometers away from the disputed Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal, now under de facto control of the Chinese Navy. The shoal is a traditional fishing ground of Filipino fishermen and was used by the US Navy in the 1950s as a gunnery range.

“This year’s iteration includes a bilateral command post exercise that will strengthen the Allies’ ability to plan, coordinate, and provide command and control of forces together against a range of scenarios and simulated challenges,” the Embassy said.

An amphibious landing operation will be held in Brooke’s Point, a town located in southern Palawan.

Brooke’s Point is around 200 to 300 kilometers away from contested islands in Spratlys in the WPS where China has occupied and built artificial islands from reefs and shoals.

The Philippines claims parts of the Spratlys and has won the award from a United Nations-approved arbitral tribunal after challenging China’s maritime jurisdiction over the entire South China Sea. The US has since supported the tribunal’s decision invalidating the Chinese claim.

“This training event will also enable the AFP and the US military to refine tactics, techniques, and procedures related to maritime security, and deconflict fires and maneuver in a shared and contested battle space,” the Embassy said.

AFP and US 7th Fleet soldiers will also hold maritime domain awareness exercises off the coast of Antique up to Palawan.

“All of our exercises will be done within territorial waters,” Logico said.

Aside from live fire training, maritime domain awareness, soldiers will also undertake drills on urban and aviation operations, cyber defense, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness.

Special operations drills will also be held in Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, in Colonel Ernesto Rabina Air Base (CERAB) in Capas, Tarlac, as well as in the Island of Calayan in Cagayan.

Calayan Island is around 386 kilometers away from Kaohshiung in Taiwan, a renegade province of China.

The Embassy didn’t say when the special operations drills would be held in Calayan Island.

For three days since Monday, China conducted military drills in the Taiwan Strait, with 45 warplanes entering Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone and 11 warships spotted around the island. Beijing simulated attacks on Taiwan’s key target areas in retaliation to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the US and meeting with US House Speaker.

“Field training exercise events will take place across the Philippines to test the Allies’ capabilities in combined arms live-fire, information and intelligence sharing, communications between maneuver units, logistics operations, amphibious operations, and many other skill sets,” the Embassy added.

There will also be multiple Humanitarian Civic Assistance (HCA) projects “to improve infrastructure, enhance medical response and strengthen ties” between local communities and the Philippine and US military forces.

These activities include the construction or renovation of three community health centers and multipurpose halls and hands-on training in advanced emergency rescue and lifesaving techniques.