From April 1 to 12, units from the major branches of the U.S. and Philippine militaries conducted 28 major exercises that tested and enhanced their skills and abilities in joint combat and humanitarian operations. During the two-week Balikatan (“Shoulder-to-Shoulder”) exercises, Filipino, American, and a small number of Australian troops participated in counter-terrorism training, amphibious operations training, aviation operations, bilateral planning, subject matter expert exchanges, and humanitarian and civic assistance projects. Balikatan 2019 was aimed at maintaining a high level of military readiness and enhancing military-to-military relations between the two allies so that they can better address maritime security, territorial defense, and humanitarian disasters. Both sides considered this year’s exercises to be “scaled-up”—they involved a combined force of 7,500 Philippine, American, and Australian service personnel, making it the largest Balikatan since 2016. It was also held at a time of heightened tensions between the Philippines and China.

Tensions between the Philippines and China first became apparent in late July 2018 when Manila expressed its concern to Beijing over the increase in offensive Chinese radio warnings against Philippine aircraft and ships flying and sailing near China’s fortified artificial islands in the South China Sea. More recently, in April 2019 the AFP reported the presence of at least 275 Chinese fishing vessels surrounding Philippine-held Thitu (Pag-asa) Island since the beginning of the year, which were deployed after the Philippine military began to rehabilitate a dilapidated runway on the feature. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs filed a diplomatic protest against China, questioning the presence of the vessels and accusing Beijing of applying a swarming tactic as part of a coercive strategy against Manila.

Against this backdrop, it is significant that Balikatan 2019 included warfighting exercises focused on live-fire activity and amphibious operations, including a naval exercise modelling the seizure of an island in the South China Sea by combined Filipino and American forces. In November 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte allowed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to continue the annual Balikatan exercises on the condition that they exclude war-fighting scenarios, focus only on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-terrorism, and anti-narcotics operations, and be held in areas away from the South China Sea. This was intended to show China that the Duterte administration was sensitive to its strategic interests. Balikatan 2018, however, brought back combat scenarios and included events such as combined arms live-fire exercises, an amphibious raid, close air support operations, artillery training, search and rescues operations, and small unit tactics operations. These training activities strengthened the Philippine-U.S. security alliance and ensured a more effective combined response in future combat operation in the aftermath of the five-month battle for Marawi City in 2017.

Balikatan 2019 went even further by including conventional territorial defense exercises conducted in locations facing the South China Sea. Philippine and U.S. Navy, Marine, and Air Force service members held a bilateral amphibious exercise in Zambales, Luzon, 110 miles from the Chinese-controlled Scarborough Shoal. The exercise involved the launching of amphibious vehicles from L-class ships to shore, demonstrating the two allies’ combined ability to capture and occupy a littoral objective in the South China Sea. Philippine and American fixed-wing and rotary aircraft provided tactical and logistical support to the combined ground forces conducting amphibious and ground maneuvers.

This year’s exercises also included the first joint Philippine-U.S. airfield seizure drill on an island adjacent to the South China Sea, aimed at helping the AFP deal with any potential island invasion. According to an U.S. Army Special Forces officer, “this exercise was a dress rehearsal that the AFP can use if any of the small islands it occupies [in the South China Sea] is taken over by a foreign military.” A Philippine military officer admitted that the “AFP [specifically] requested this training upon recognizing that this is one of its gaps in counter-terrorism operations.”

Another major war-fighting exercise was the Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise that was carried out at the former U.S. 13th Air Force firing range in Crow Valley, near Clark Air Base. During this exercise, the Philippine and U.S. militaries shared tactics and techniques in providing indirect and suppressing fire to allow ground combat elements to advance and destroy a notional enemy. The exercise tested Philippine and U.S. service members’ maneuver warfare skills and strengthened their ability for joint combat operations.

The U.S. Navy deployed the U.S.S. Wasp and its complement of at least 10 F-35Bs, 4 MV-22 Ospreys, and 2 MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters in this year’s Balikatan. Three other American warships accompanied the Wasp and it participated in both humanitarian and amphibious operations. The U.S. military’s exercise spokesperson pointed out “that the participation [of the Wasp and its F-35Bs] in Balikatan 2019 demonstrated their ability to forward deploy in support of an ally should a crisis or natural disaster occur.”

The stabilization of the Philippine-U.S. alliance, the return of warfighting scenarios in the recently concluded Balikatan exercises, and the increasing tensions between Manila and Beijing are indications of what a Chinese academic once observed as “the historic pattern of fluctuation” in Philippine-China relations. This should make both Manila and Beijing wary of how long their current rapprochement will last.

About Renato Cruz de Castro

Renato Cruz De Castro is a distinguished university professor in the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila, and holds the Dr. Aurelio Calderon Chair in Philippines-American Relation. As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Albert Del Rosario Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ADRI), he writes monthly opinion columns for the Philippine Star and Business World.