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US-Philippines Conclude Largest-Ever Military Exercise

The U.S. and Philippines Friday concluded nearly three weeks of annual military drills known as Balikatan in the south Pacific Ocean near the island chain nation.

In a news release, the U.S. military said nearly 18,000 soldiers from both nations took part in the drills, making them the largest in the 38-year history of the military exercises.

Balikatan means “shoulder-to-shoulder” or “sharing the load together,” in Philippine Tagalog dialect, a term becoming more appropriate in the past year as relations between the two longtime allies have improved since the election of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.   

On Wednesday, Marcos watched the exercises in person from an observation tower in the northwestern Philippine coastal town of San Antonio. That day U.S. and Philippines forces, working together, targeted, engaged and sank a decommissioned Philippines battleship.

Marcos has sought to improve relations with the United States that soured under his predecessor, former president Rodrigo Duterte, at least in part because of increased tensions with China regarding the disputed waters in the region.

A Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson issued a statement Friday rebuking what she called China’s recent “highly dangerous maneuvers” earlier this week against the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in the waters off Ayungin Shoal. The PCG was on a routine maritime patrol.  

The Ayungin Shoal – also known as the Second Thomas Shoal – is a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands. The coast guard reported that two Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels “intercepted” them in the vicinity of the shoal and exhibited “aggressive tactics,” coming within 46 meters of the ship.  

The Chinese Foreign Ministry insisted the near miss was caused by the PCG, claiming it was the aggressor.  

Reuters reports China has claimed sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, an area that stretches more than 1,500 kilometers off its mainland and cuts into the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. An international arbitral ruling in 2016 dismissed that line as having no legal basis.

Tensions with China were mentioned during the closing ceremonies of the Balikatan exercises Friday. Philippines Armed Forces Chief of Staff Andres Centino noted the “strong results” of the exercises are more significant “given the current security environment and the real threats” that continue to evolve within the region.

President Marcos is scheduled to travel to Washington next week for meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden. Their defense alliance is expected to be high on the agenda.

Some information in this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence French-Presse.