May 2022

Shoulder to shoulder against China

An acceleration in US-Filipino security collaboration in the South China Sea has angered Beijing. Yvonne Gill  reports

Even as a devastating war raged in Ukraine, and Russia continues to challenge NATO to keep away or face consequences, the South China Sea witnessed one of the largest ever US-Philippines military exercises. No wonder it evoked strong protestation from Beijing, which described the exercise as a move to ‘encircle China’. For the United States, the Philippines agreeing to join the exercise – conducted by thousands of US-Filipino troops – gives a new lease of life to the longstanding military cooperation between the two countries that had become lukewarm during the six years of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency.

Code-named Balikatan, meaning ‘shoulder to shoulder’ inTagalog, the exercises have been conducted annually since 1991 after the US decided to close down its two military bases at Subic Bay and Clark, its largest military presence in the East. The exercises have been a part of the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty that provides for the US coming to the Philippines’ aid in case of an attack on the country, and vice versa. The exercise was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19, and only held as a token last year.

DUAL GAME: The Philippines’ President Duterte

President Duterte had been systematically downgrading these close security ties with the US in order to woo China, despite the Philippines’ outstanding territorial disputes with its powerful neighbour. He even went to the extent of putting aside the ruling of an international tribunal which favoured the Philippines and categorically ruled that most of China’s claims in the South China Sea were contrary to international law. Although China offered billions of dollars in development aid to the Philippines, it also continued to bully its small neighbour by sending its fishing vessels, accompanied by Chinese coast guard vessels, into disputed maritime zones between the two nations, particularly, the South China Sea’s Scarborough Shoal, which China had taken control of in 2012, after a two-month standoff.

President Duterte had been systematically downgrading close security ties with the US in order to woo China

The Chinese mention historic records to lay claim to almost 90 per cent of the 3.5 million square kilometres of the South China Sea. On the other side, there are a host of countries besides the Philippines, including Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, claiming all or parts of the sea that is exceptionally rich in fish resources and has proven fossil fuel reserves. Moreover, the marine shipping lanes of the South China Sea carry some $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade every year.

Uncertainty remains about the outcome of the keenly-contested election

Duterte played a dual game of pleasing the Chinese by curbing the American presence, but then relenting under pressure from the Filipino military establishment, which has enjoyed close fraternal ties with the US military. The Philippine-US defence alliance of 1951 grew deeper with a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) signed in 1999. Duterte had threatened to scrap the VFA, but in the end relented. The relentless pressure tactics of the Chinese sending more than 220 Chinese boats into a disputed South China Sea reef in March and April 2021might have proved to be last straw. A Chinese research vessel remained for three days earlier this year in the Sulu Sea near the Philippines. These incidents incensed Manilano end, causing the Chinese ambassador to be summoned and issued with a protest. Such Chinese highhandedness drove the Filipino security and political establishment to take immediate measures to prepare and confront their much more powerful neighbour. The Indo-Philippines Brahmos supersonic anti-ship missile deal sent a clear message to the communist giant that the small nation was prepared for a David-Goliath confrontation.

Around 9,000 military and naval personnel from the Philippines and US took part in Balikatan 2022

Around 9,000 personnel of the Philippine Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, special operations forces and the US military took part in Balikatan 2022. Giving it a larger Indo-Pacific dimension, nearly 40 Australian Defence Force personnel also took part in this year’s exercise.

Led by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the two-week exercise between March 28 and April 8 not only tested the inter-operability between the forces of the two nations, but it also introduced the latest weaponry, vessels and aircraft into the training, conducted from the northern Philippines coast of Luzon to Palawan.

The exercise comprised maritime and field training events, including amphibious operations, live-fire training, air defence operations and counter terrorism, as well as disaster relief missions. The AFP invited observers to promote defence cooperation with allies and partners, according to a media readout.

More than 50 aircraft, four ships, ten amphibious vessels and four HIMARS rocket launchers were deployed, while four US Patriot missile launchers and 130 soldiers of the 1st Air Defense Artillery Regiment of the US army joined the drills from Okinawa, Japan. The air-defence equipment and troops landed at Aparri on hovercraft deployed by the USS Ashland amphibious assault ship. ‘Following the landing, the Patriot missile system moved inland as part of a multiday rehearsal of a territorial coastal defence in northern Luzon,’ a US army spokesman said.

Philippine and US officers unfurl the 'Balikatan' or 'Shoulder to Shoulder' flag during the opening ceremonies

The long shadow of the Ukraine war was visible in the Marines practicing with shoulder-held Stinger missiles for low-altitude air defence. The advanced Patriots were tested for quick amphibious deployment in the Philippines against high-altitude threats.

‘The experience gained from exercise Balikatan complemented our security cooperation endeavours and helped enhance existing mutual security efforts,’ said AFP exercise director Maj-General Charlton Sean Gaerlan.

With the crucial presidential election scheduled in May, and Duterte on the way out because he cannot contest a second term, there is a sigh of relief within the pro-American establishment of the Philippines. However, uncertainty remains about the outcome of the keenly-contested election, with ten candidates vying for the top job.

Although most of the candidates in the fray have declared their commitment to strengthening US-Philippines ties, Ferdinand Marcos Jr – son of the former dictator, whom opinion polls present as by far the frontrunner – is a Duterte ally. He is on record as having said that he would not pursue the international tribunal award favouring the Philippines with regard to the maritime territorial dispute with China, and would work to improve bilateral relations with Beijing. It is not clear what Marcos’ policy would be if he is elected as president. Will he go back to the balancing act of his predecessor, or come out strong against China, maintaining close ties with the US and its allies?

In view of growing Chinese belligerence, the mandarins in Manila should realise that Beijing believes in the dictum ‘Might is right’. A trilateral Japan-South Korea-Philippines alliance, working in close cooperation with the US and its Indo-Pacific allies, could be a powerful pushback against China in the South and South-East China Seas – a stratagem for maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London