Philippines, US troops storm ‘enemy’ in Zambales military exercises

Jaime Laude - The Philippine Star
Philippines, US troops storm �enemy� in Zambales military exercises
A US amphibious assault vehicle trundles past Philippine Marines taking position during a simulated beach landing as part of the annual Balikatan military exercises at a Navy training camp in San Antonio, Zambales yesterday.
Krizjohn Rosales

MANILA, Philippines — Some 340 Filipino and American troops stormed and neutralized “enemy” positions along the coastline of San Antonio, Zambales yesterday.

This was among the highlights of the Balikatan joint military exercises between the Philippines and US troops for this year.

Balikatan is the yearly joint military training carried out in the country under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States.

Balikatan-Philippines spokesperson Lt. Liezl Vidallon said 180 Filipino sailors and Marines took part in the coastal assault with around 160 American troops.

Three American amphibious assault vehicles and two landing craft from the Philippine Navy’s landing dock ship BRP Davao del Sur took part in the drill.

Providing extra muscle to the mock beachhead assault was the Navy’s frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz.

Simultaneously hitting the beaches, combined Filipino and American troops engaged the “enemies” in close quarter battle in an urban setting.

The joint troops will also take part in live fire exercises in a gunnery range at Crow Valley in Tarlac, as well as land combat drills at the Army’s base in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija.

A small number of troops from the Australian Defense Force (ADF) as well as those from Japan are also participating in this year’s land-based combat drill.

The decades-old tradition appeared headed for the history books last year as newly elected President Duterte pivoted toward China – and away from long-time Philippine ally the US.

But the number of troops taking part in the drills has increased by a third from last year to 8,000, a return to figures seen in years past when the exercises served as a thinly veiled deterrent to a rising China.

Duterte’s change of heart on the two-week Balikatan may be due to what experts see as careful efforts by the military to restrain their unpredictable president.

“The fact it’s being done under this administration means they (Duterte’s government) now have a better understanding of the security equation,” political analyst Victor Andres Manhit said.

Though the bulked-up maneuvers – including a live-fire component that was dropped last year – took place on a naval base just 180 kilometers east of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal that China has controlled since 2012, the drill’s leaders barely mentioned Beijing.

“We are an island nation. That’s why we need to improve our capabilities on amphibious operations,” Army Major General Emmanuel Salamat told reporters.

“We’re not concerned about Scarborough. We’re concerned about what we’re doing here.”

China claims most of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway believed to harbor significant oil and natural gas deposits, but this was ruled illegal in 2016 after Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino III filed suit before an international maritime tribunal.

Duterte has since reversed course and set the ruling aside, along with long-simmering friction over competing claims to the waters, in order to court Chinese trade and investment.

He has also cut two major annual naval exercises with the US and last year reduced the Balikatan contingent to 5,400 US and Filipino troops.

The decision came at a low point for US-Philippine relations, when Duterte called the American ambassador “gay” and served notice that the 2017 edition would “be the last military exercise” with the United States. – With  Jose Rodel Clapano, AFP

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