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Key changes and why China is alarmed?

The Philippines and the United States have launched their largest joint military exercises to date under the 2024 Balikatan (Shoulder to Shoulder). This year’s exercises involve nearly 17,000 troops from both countries from April to May.

The Balikatan exercises between the two allies are an annual practice, but what is different this year? And why is China angry about that?

This year’s joint military exercises have produced many firsts.

For the first time, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) is actively participating in the exercises, deploying six ships that previously only patrolled the perimeter. This change comes after repeated confrontations with Chinese ships on the Second Thomas Shoal.

To add to the novelty, France has joined the exercises and deployed a frigate in Manila’s exclusive economic zone known as the West Philippine Sea, marking its first participation since the inception of these exercises in 1991.

Another first is the participation of 14 countries as observers for Balikatan 2024, including New Zealand, India, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, France, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

Prior to the Balikatan, the Philippines had already conducted naval and air exercises with Japan, Australia and the US.

While New Zealand, during Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s visit to Manila, expressed NZ’s willingness to sign a defense cooperation pact related to the Mutual Logistics Supporting Arrangement and a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. later this year.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. during a bilat in Manila. Photo: c/o NZ Embassy in Manila.

In addition, before the drills began, the US, Japan and the Philippines convened an unprecedented trilateral summit in Washington, where US President Joe Biden openly warned Beijing against using force against its regional allies.

The outward focus of the exercises in this year’s Balikatan is a significant change. Traditionally, the Philippine Armed Forces have been trained to protect their citizens from internal conflict caused by local terrorism and insurgencies. But this time, the exercises aim to improve the combat skills of Filipinos to combat and defend their territory against possible foreign enemy attacks, allowing them to “demonstrate the comprehensive archipelago defense concept.”

“All available resources of the Philippine Army will be utilized. So we can see (our) interoperability with all major services (with partner countries),” Philippine Army spokesperson Col. Louie Dema-ala told the media, underscoring the scale and magnitude. importance of the exercises, which focus on a full range of operations including island defense, cyber warfare, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

In addition, the Pentagon deployed the “Typhon” ground-based missile system, which has a range of up to 1,600 kilometers, for the Balikatan exercises for the first time.

The allies will also conduct live-fire exercises involving the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which has proven decisive in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. For its part, the Philippines will deploy for the first time its new Korean-built C-star ship-based missile system, which can hit targets up to 87 miles away.

The most controversial change of all is that the exercise will be conducted outside the Philippines’ EEZ, technically in the South China Sea and in the northern part of the country near Taiwan.

According to policy and security expert Prof. Richard Javad Heydarian, writing for the Lowy Institute, the move is seen as “a direct challenge to China’s extensive claims over the South China Sea. And some planned exercises clearly have threats from the Asian superpower in mind. “

US and PH troops during the Information Warfighting exercise. Photo: c/o US Embassy in the Philippines.

Another highlight of this year’s Balikatan is the sinking of a decommissioned Chinese naval tanker: the BRP Lake Caliraya. While it may seem like a tangible message to deter Beijing, the military said this action was “not intentional.” Colonel Michael Logico, spokesperson for Balikatan 2024.

China has responded sternly to these exercises. China’s Foreign Ministry warned the Philippines to stop engaging external countries “to show off their power in the South China Sea and provoke confrontation” as this “will only worsen tensions and worsen regional will undermine stability’.

“The Philippines is pursuing selfish gains at the expense of the consensus reached by countries in the region,” spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing. “This is the main reason why the situation in the South China Sea has escalated and become more complicated.”

In response to Balikatan, Beijing has also deployed Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea, nearly seven to eight nautical miles away from the Philippines and US exercises. Beijing’s presence was felt, but no communication problems occurred.

Banner: c/o PNP

-Asia Media Center