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An advanced party from the United States Armed Forces that will be joining the 2023 “Balikatan” exercises next month is scheduled to arrive in the Philippines on March 20.

Col. Medel Aguilar, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), on Saturday said the guests would be working on various humanitarian civic assistance programs before the annual military exercises formally begin April 11.

“Ito po ay mga construction of facilities at saka mga cooperative health engagements, community relations programs na isasagawa po ng AFP at saka ng US Armed Forces bilaterally sa iba-ibang lugar sa buong Pilipinas (These would involve construction of facilities and cooperative health engagements as well as community relations programs that would be undertaken by the AFP and US Armed Forces across the Philippines),” he said in a media forum.

More than 17,000 personnel from the Philippines and the US will be joining this year’s Balikatan (literally meaning shoulder-to-shoulder) the largest iteration of the annual joint military drills.

The exercises will be held from April 11 to 28 in various parts of the country, including Palawan, Batanes, and Zambales.

READ: Over 17K PH, US troops to join ‘biggest-ever’ Balikatan drills

Both the AFP and the Australian Embassy earlier confirmed that around 100 members of the Australian Defence Force would be active participants.

“Australia is proud to return as an active participant in Exercise Balikatan 2023. This is a significant activity that offers the opportunity for the Australian Defence Force to continue to work closely with our partners, particularly the Philippines and the US,” the Australian Embassy in Manila said in a statement.

“In 2023, Australian participation will be our strongest yet — with approximately 100 personnel from conventional and special forces participating in multiple scenarios throughout the Philippines, this includes field training and live fire activities.”

Japan, meanwhile, will deploy observers.

Tokyo and Manila are still in talks over the proposed establishment of a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) or a Status of Forces Agreement which would pave the way for more enhanced training and exercises between the two nations.

AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Andres Centino led a Philippine delegation to the Defense and Security Equipment International in Tokyo, Japan on March 14 to 17.

He had an opportunity to discuss the RAA with Gen. Koji Yamazaki, chief of the Japan Self Defense Forces, as well as issues of mutual concern on maritime cooperation and defense, and capability development.

Col. Jorry Baclor, AFP public affairs chief, said in a statement that Yamazaki guaranteed Japan’s “friendship and assistance on common security issues together with other like-minded countries” for a rules-based international order in the West Philippines Sea and a “free and open” Indo-Pacific. (PNA)