The United States and the Philippines have kicked off their largest military exercise in decades, Balikatan, with over 17,600 military personnel participating. The exercises, which will continue until April 28, will feature a live-fire rocket barrage in the disputed South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, where the U.S. has repeatedly warned China over its increasingly aggressive actions. The drills will involve U.S. warships, fighter jets, and anti-tank Javelins, as well as Patriot missiles and HIMARS rocket launchers.
In addition to U.S. forces, the drills will include 5,400 Filipino forces and 111 Australian counterparts. The allies will sink a target ship in Philippine territorial waters in a first-ever live-fire drill. Philippine military officials stated that the exercises aim to bolster the country’s coastal defense and disaster-response capabilities and are not aimed at any country.
The drills are part of the Biden administration’s efforts to strengthen alliances in Asia to better counter China, including a possible confrontation over Taiwan. The Philippines under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has also been working to defend its territorial interests in the South China Sea by boosting joint military exercises with the U.S. and allowing rotating batches of American forces to stay in additional Philippine military camps under a 2014 defense pact.
The territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines, and four other governments and Beijing’s goal of annexing Taiwan have put Washington and Beijing on a collision course. China last week warned against the intensifying U.S. military deployment to the region, saying it “would only lead to more tensions and less peace and stability in the region.” The Balikatan exercises opened in the Philippines a day after China concluded three days of combat drills that simulated sealing off Taiwan, following Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California that infuriated Beijing.
On Monday, the U.S. 7th Fleet deployed guided-missile destroyer USS Milius within 12 nautical miles off Mischief Reef, a Manila-claimed coral outcrop which China seized in the mid-1990s and turned into one of seven missile-protected island bases in the South China Sea’s hotly contested Spratlys archipelago. The U.S. military has been undertaking such freedom of navigation operations for years to challenge China’s expansive territorial claims.
The Philippine foreign and defense secretaries will meet their American counterparts in Washington to discuss the American military presence and proposed joint naval patrols, highlighting the deepening defense cooperation between the two countries. The Balikatan exercises are just one example of how the U.S. and its allies are working together to maintain stability in the region amidst growing Chinese aggression.
The Balikatan exercises have been a regular feature of the U.S.-Philippines alliance for decades. However, this year’s drills have taken on added significance amid rising tensions between the United States and China. The exercises come as the Philippines and China continue to trade barbs over their territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Earlier this week, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. accused China of “blatantly intruding” into Philippine waters after a Chinese navy ship was spotted in the disputed waters. The Philippines has long been a vocal critic of China’s assertiveness in the region and has taken steps to bolster its own military capabilities in response.
The United States, for its part, has been working to build up its military presence in the region in recent years, in what it sees as a necessary response to China’s growing military power. The Biden administration has made clear that it intends to continue this policy of engagement, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken stating last month that the United States would “push back if necessary” against China’s aggressive actions.
The Balikatan exercises are just the latest example of this policy in action. They also demonstrate the growing importance of regional alliances in the United States’ strategy to counter China. As U.S. forces work alongside their Filipino and Australian counterparts in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, they are sending a clear message to Beijing that the United States is committed to defending its interests and those of its allies in the region.
The exercises also highlight the strategic importance of the Philippines to the United States. As the Philippines continues to grapple with territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the United States has become an increasingly important partner in the country’s efforts to defend its interests. The Balikatan exercises, which involve joint military training and disaster-response drills, are a key part of this partnership.
The exercises will continue until April 28, and are expected to involve a range of activities, including live-fire rocket barrages and anti-submarine warfare drills. The joint naval exercises will involve the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, as well as other U.S. warships and aircraft. The drills are expected to be closely watched by China, which has already warned against any “provocative actions” in the region.