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PH-US biggest military drills in 8 years set Apr.

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The Philippines and the United States will carry out their biggest joint military drills since 2015, Philippine Army chief Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner said, against a backdrop of growing tensions with China in the South China Sea.

This year’s “Balikatan” military exercises between American and Filipino troops will take place in April, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Col. Medel Aguilar had said in a statement Monday.

The exercises underscore improved ties with the US under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and come as the Philippines condemns China’s “aggressive” actions in the disputed waterway, including its use of a “military-grade laser” against one of Manila’s vessels earlier this week (see related story on A1 – Editors).

The 38th annual Balikatan exercises will be conducted in the second quarter and involve more than the previous year’s 8,900 troops, Brawner told reporters.

“All of these exercises that we are doing are in response to all types of threats that we may be facing in the future, both man-made and natural,” Brawner said.

Mr. Marcos on Tuesday summoned China’s ambassador to express “serious concern” over the intensity and frequency of China’s activities in the South China Sea, most of which China claims as its territory.

China’s use of a laser against a Philippine vessel on Feb. 6, which its foreign ministry insists was legal, has sparked expressions of concerns and support from Australia, Japan, and the US, among other countries.

Washington “will redouble its efforts with our Philippine ally” to bolster the Philippine military and coast guard’s defense capabilities “as we work shoulder-to-shoulder to uphold the rules-based international order,” Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said on Twitter.

The Philippines has granted Washington greater access to its military bases as part of the latter’s efforts to deter China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and tension over self-ruled Taiwan.

In 2015, more than 11,000 troops from both countries participated in the joint military exercises.

“The exercises will involve a myriad of activities, not just focused on developing the war fighting capability of both armed forces, but also of the other non-traditional roles such as humanitarian assistance and disaster response,” Brawner said.

“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,” Aguilar said earlier this week.

He 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.

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.

At the same time, President Marcos had urged the top officers of the AFP to “keep up with the times” and be more agile in fostering partnerships as the global situation becomes “more and more complicated.”

The President made this remark in a speech at the oath-taking ceremony of newly promoted generals and flag rank officers of the AFP in Malacañang on Monday.

Mr. Marcos also told the AFP top brass: “We, therefore, have to be more agile in our responses not only in the military area but also in diplomacy, also in geopolitical negotiations, and in our partnerships that we foster with our friends and allies around the world.”

The President sought to strengthen the country’s collaboration with various government agencies, allies, partners, and other stakeholders to safeguard and advance the country’s national interest amid tensions and challenges.

The role of the AFP and its commanders, according to the President, has “certainly changed,” hence the need to continue to keep up with the times.

“Not only has the situation – the geopolitical situation become more complex, even the method of warfighting has become more complex with the new technologies, with the new capabilities that have become available to us,” Mr. Marcos pointed out.

This is why the military must ensure it knows “very well how to use the tools that are given us to the best effect for the national interest,” he said.

“The AFP has never failed in that mission, and I only hope to continue to inspire to keep up the good work and keep the Philippines safe,” Mr. Marcos added.

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