Philippines, US eyeing inclusion of Japan in annual military exercise


US President Joe Biden speaks to the press with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right) and President Marcos at the White House in Washington on April 11. - AFP

MANILA: The Philippines and the United States are considering the expansion of their annual “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) military exercises to include Japan following the historic trilateral meeting of the leaders of the three countries in Washington last week, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said on Monday (April 15).

Marcos welcomed the idea of having Japanese troops participate in the Balikatan war games, carried out under the Mutual Defence Treaty between the Philippines and the United States.

“I don’t see any reason why not. It is a good move for us to make it easier to work together and coordinate together, [and] maximise the resources we have to maintain peace and stability,” he noted.

Marcos made the statement in response to a question on whether the Balikatan exercises could become a trilateral undertaking when he faced members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in a question-and-answer session during its 50th anniversary celebration at the Manila Hotel.

The President expressed optimism over the newly formed alliance with the United States and Japan, forged during the trilateral meeting with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, through an agreement on preserving peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.

He also played down speculation that the US-Philippines-Japan alliance was directed toward a specific country such as China, saying it was merely a strengthening of relations among the three nations.

Security and defence was tackled during the meeting for interoperability to maintain the freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea, he pointed out.

The spokesperson for the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea also said on Monday that the trilateral alliance of the Philippines, United States and Japan was not gearing up for war, but a part of efforts to bolster the country’s military capability.

Assistant Secretary Jonathan Malaya allayed the public’s fears over the influx of hundreds of American troops in the northern provinces of the Philippines, particularly Ilocos Norte and Cagayan.

“Our countrymen have no reason to be concerned because there is no impending war, even as—we know this to be true—there had been a lot of speculation especially on social media that the Philippines, US and Japan seem to be gearing up [for] war,” he said.

“The ongoing Balikatan exercise is a huge one, in which our troops are training with the United States and observers from Australia and Japan. These are all meant to boost the Armed Forces of the Philippines and not [preparing for] an impending war,” he said.

According to Marcos, the Philippine government is also “watching closely” the political developments in the United States and how the prospects of a Donald Trump presidency would cause a shift in its commitment of an “iron-clad” relationship with the Philippines.

“I think it would be artful to say that we do not watch closely the political cycle that is ongoing in the United States... if President Biden is reelected, then we have a fairly solid ground to base our positions on because we have already spoken with him,” he said.

“But, inevitably, if there is a change in government, then there would be changes in policy. We do not know what those are,” the President added.

But he expressed confidence that the agreements entered into by the Philippines and the United States are treaties and transcend changes in the political landscape.

“I think that since they almost rise to treaty agreements, those treaty agreements must be honoured. That, I think, puts us on ground,” he said.

Aside from the proposal to expand the Balikatan, Marcos said the Philippines and Japan were now finalising the operational details of the planned Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA).

“It’s just a question of getting the language down and defining precisely how it’s going to work—the logistical systems and how that’s going to work—but it should not take very much longer,” he said.

Marcos said he and Kishida talked about the RAA during their Washington meeting.

“I think we’re very close to completion on that,” he said.

The RAA would not be the same as the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, which, he said, had “caused problems” due to the presence of American troops in the country.

“It’s not going to be as if it’s their base and the people there—their seamen will come down and will go into the city. I don’t think that’s part of the agreement,” he said.

The President said the government would no longer be adding more sites to the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (Edca) with the United States after nearly doubling the number last year.

China has previously accused the Philippines of “stoking the fire” when it increased the number of bases the US military could use to nine from five, with the new sites located close to potential flashpoints.

“The answer to that is no,” Marcos said in response to a query whether the Philippines would allow American access to more bases.

“The Philippines has no plan to create any more bases or give access to any more bases,” he told the forum with foreign correspondents. — Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN/Reuters

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Philippines , Balikatan , Japan , military , exercise

   

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