The Philippines and the United States will hold a large-scale 10-day military exercise known as Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) from April 20-30. This takes place in the face of China’s island-building activities in the South China Sea. For Balikatan 2015, 11,740 American, Filipino, and Australian troops will conduct joint training exercises and maneuvers in three separate locations in the Philippines. This is twice the number of the Filipino and American troops who participated in last year’s Balikatan exercise. The United States will also deploy at least 75 aircraft and three warships. The Philippines will send 15 aircraft and one ship; Australia will bring one transport plane. Balikatan 2015 will include joint training in territorial defense, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response. There will also be a Command Post Exercise (CPX) event that will focus on Maritime Security (MARSEC) with a Combined Arms Lived Fire Exercise to test the capacity of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’s (AFP’s) newly formed National Maneuver Forces. These drills are significant because the Philippines has traditionally relied heavily on the U.S. for its territorial defense requirements, given its limited conventional military capabilities.
Balikatan 2015 is the 31st bilateral military exercise between the two allies, who are partners in the 1951 Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. It is the most comprehensive among the annual regular joint military exercises conducted by the two allies as it is designed to develop the AFP’s combat readiness in territorial defense, and to enhance the two armed forces’ interoperability. The AFP has described this year’s exercise as an expanded Balikatan given the 100 percent increase in the number of troops involved, and the conduct of live-fire trainings that will be staged by the two allies close to the South China Sea. The United States is sending 6,000 troops to the Philippines, more than double the 2,599 American servicemen who took part in last year’s exercise. U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps units will train alongside their Filipino counterparts. Elements of the Okinawa-based III Marine Expeditionary Force will conduct beach training maneuvers on the main island of Luzon. American forces will operate from the Clark Air Field, formerly a U.S Air Force base in the Philippines, while a combined lived-fire exercise will be held in another former American military facility–Crow Valley Gunnery Range. Some joint exercises will be held along the west coast of the main island of Luzon, and in the western coastal areas of the province of Palawan, both areas facing the South China Sea. Notably, some of the events will also be held at the Zambales Naval Base in Luzon, which is located only 137 miles east of the Chinese-controlled Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.
During press briefings, the Philippine military spokesperson denied that the expansion of the annual war game was directed against China. This seems improbable, given the number of troops that will be involved in the expanded war games and the fact that some of the events will be in coastal areas facing the South China Sea. Moreover, commentators and analysts cannot help but link the expanded Balikatan 2015 with the Chinese island-building in the South China Sea in the light of increasing American criticism of these activities. American military officials and top political leaders have criticized China’s building activities by pointing out that this construction is decreasing the chances of a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute. In late March 2015, the Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry Harris, accused China of “creating a great wall of sand with dredgers and bulldozers” in the Spratlys. During his trip to Japan early this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declared that the “United States has long opposed that kind of activity” (island construction) and that the United States would continue to watch these developments “closely.”
The strongest criticism of China’s island construction activities was voiced out by no less than U.S. President Barack Obama himself. During a town hall meeting in Jamaica, President Obama criticized China’s recent building activities the South China Sea. He also admitted that his administration is concerned with China as it is “not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules, and using its size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.” He then warned China not to “elbow aside” smaller countries like the Philippines and Vietnam in its conflict over territories in the South China Sea dispute. By increasing the number of American troops in Balikatan 2015, the Obama Administration seems to be sending a not-so-subtle message to China that its rapid building efforts will not undermine longstanding alliances.