US and Philippines to Hold Full Scale Military Exercises in 2022

By Ashok Ramprasad | October 20, 2021
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TOPSHOT - Philippine soldiers hoist a national flag after clashes with Islamic State-affiliated extremists in the mountain area of Piagapo town, Lanao del Sur province, on the southern island of Mindanao on April 25, 2017. (Image: RICHEL UMEL/AFP via Getty Images) The Philippine military said April 25 it had killed almost 40 militants loyal to the Islamic State group, including three Indonesians and a Malaysian, in a major land and air assault in the south. / AFP PHOTO / RICHEL UMEL (Photo credit should read RICHEL UMEL/AFP via Getty Images)

Senior military leaders of the Philippines and United States indicated on Oct. 14 that they will conduct full-scale joint military exercises next year. The exercises were canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, both militaries had carried out a scaled-down version of the drills.

Gen. Jose Faustino Jr., the Philippines’ top military officer, and Adm. John Aquilino, head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, recently took part in a virtual meeting of the Mutual Defense Board that is held annually between the two nations.

“I believe we will look to renew and get back to a full-scale event, and we will both look for opportunities to increase the complexity, the scope all the way to look towards new partners participating in the future,” Aquilino said to the Philippine News Agency (PNA).

During the meeting, Aquilino and Faustino discussed the possibility of building makeshift U.S. bases in the Philippines. Faustino said that the U.S. could potentially use three Philippine bases, with one in the southern Mindanao region and another on the main Philippine island of Luzon acting as forward operating bases to stock equipment.

“There is no final list of what the probable sites will be, but we are looking at different areas, and we are considering, of course, how it will be beneficial to our armed forces and to the United States Armed Forces also,” Faustino said.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) revealed that the United Kingdom might join the 2022 edition of “Balikatan” military exercises as an observer. Balikatan, which means shoulder-to-shoulder, is the name given to the annual military drills involving the Philippines and the United States. Last year, Japan and Australia took part as observers.

“If we compare it with the US, we have a treaty [with them] and they can participate in the exercises, which is not allowed [for those with mere observer status] if we do not have an existing treaty with these countries. So, they are just here to observe and cannot participate in the exercises,” Gen. Jose Faustino Jr., the Philippines’ top military officer, said to reporters. The Philippines has a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. 

Aquilino pointed out that it is normal for Washington to allow some allied nations to take part in military exercises as observers. Faustino has the authority to determine which nations participate as observers, he added.  

“It helps the nations who have not participated in these larger, complex events understand the intricacies, the commitments, the preparation, so the term ‘observer status’ is not anything specifically or special to Balikatan… It’s a way to [welcome] other countries into our events and many nations execute the same construct,” Aquilino told The Manila Times.

The revelation of a probable British involvement as an observer in the Balikatan exercises comes just weeks after Australia, the UK, and the U.S. signed a defense agreement, AUKUS. While the Philippines is supportive of AUKUS, neighbors like Malaysia and Indonesia have expressed concerns about the military alliance.

“We acknowledge those rights, just as they acknowledge ours. The key word here is rules-based international order. So we will benefit from that,” Faustino said of AUKUS. 

According to security analysts, the trilateral alliance will help Australia develop nuclear submarines and act as a countermeasure to China’s growing aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea.