Palawan News file photo

This year’s “Balikatan” military exercises between U.S. and Filipino troops will take place in April.

“The AFP and the US Armed Forces are once again holding the 38th iteration of annual bilateral ‘Balikatan’ exercises. although this is a bilateral activity, the AFP takes the lead in planning and execution, supported by the US Armed Forces with other like-minded nations as observers,” Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Col. Medel Aguilar said in a statement Monday.

Aguilar said “Balikatan” 38-2023 will help the AFP in developing its external defense capabilities and fulfilling its obligations to other countries in the region in terms of countering terrorism and other security threats.

“‘Balikatan’ 38-2023 will result in the development of the AFP capability not only in the conduct of external defense operations but also in fulfilling its obligation in working with other countries in the region against terrorism and other threats,” he added.

The AFP neither indicated the exact dates of the exercises nor gave an exact number of participating American and Filipino military personnel for this year’s exercises.

However, it said the maneuvers will be held in the areas of jurisdiction of the Northern Luzon Command, Visayas Command and Western Command.

“Yun (the) number of (participating) personnel is still undergoing discussion,” AFP public affairs office chief Col. Jorry Baclor told reporters.

He also said the “Balikatan” exercises are for the second week of April but added that this is still “tentative” and is still “to be finalized”.

In the 2022 iteration of “Balikatan,” around 3,800 members of the AFP and 5,100 US military personnel — the largest number of combined personnel of the two militaries in the annual exercise since the start of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic in 2020, participated in the annual exercises.

The Philippines and US exercise forces employed more than 50 aircraft, four ships, 10 amphibious craft, four high mobility artillery rocket system launchers, and four Patriot missile systems during “Balikatan” 2022.

“Balikatan” 2022 also included approximately 40 personnel from the Australian Defense Force.

Meanwhile, Aguilar said the AFP is grateful for the support extended by Senators Francis Tolentino, Francis Escudero and Sherwin Gatchalian to the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement where the Philippines and US both agreed on four new locations as EDCA sites last week.

“This manifestation of support is in line with our treaty obligation as contained in the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951,” he added.

Since the signing of EDCA in 2014, Aguilar said EDCA has continuously facilitated the conduct of military exercises and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations in support of the AFP mission.

“Likewise, with the threat of climate change, our partnership with modern and well-equipped countries such as the United States of America will develop the capability of our troops in executing HADR operations in times of natural calamities and disasters,” Aguilar said.

“In addition to capability development, our engagement with a friend and a long-time ally also brings economic activities and opportunities that will benefit the people of the host local government units. This will further improve business confidence that will provide the economic stability that investors seek,” he added.

Cagayan De Oro 2nd District Representative Rufus Rodriguez welcomed the decision to expand the EDCA with US.

“It is in our national interest to pursue and expand our defense partnership with the United States to deter further aggression from China in the West Philippine Sea and possible Chinese seizure of islets that belong to us under International law,” he said in a statement on Monday.

He said the expanded EDCA should be further broadened, including in areas where Filipino fishermen have been experiencing harassment.

“I support the Philippine Air Force base at the former Lumbia airport in our city. I expect the US government to pour in more funds to develop and fully capacitate the air base,” Rodriguez said.

He said the free ports in Subic, Zambales and Clark in Angeles City, Pampanga, which are former US military bases, should be part of EDCA training-exercises and humanitarian activities.

“The presence of the US in the former US Navy base in Subic could deter Chinese Coast Guard and military vessels from driving away our fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds in Scarborough or Panatag Shoal, or Bajo de Masinloc, which is near Zambales and Pangasinan,” he said.

Rodriguez proposed that Pag-asa Island off Palawan should also be included in EDCA.

He said expanded defense cooperation in the south should prompt the Marcos administration to allow and support oil and gas exploration in the Reed Bank near Palawan.

He noted that Reed Bank or Recto Bank is reportedly holding more oil and gas reserves than the Malampaya natural gas project, also located in Palawan. (with reports from Zaldy De Layola/PNA)