US, Philippines Expand Exercise Balikatan to Territorial Edges Amid Chinese Aggression

Foreign Affairs

Basco (Philippines): A Philippine fishing vessel was traversing Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea when two Chinese Coast Guard ships fired water cannons at both sides of the boat. The incident, which took place April 30 during the Balikatan exercise with American and Philippine armed forces, is just one example of what has become a commonplace occurrence — Chinese aggression in areas the Philippines considers its territory. Although, notably, the two Asian nations are among several others asserting sovereignty over local geographic features.



Still, China’s military activities in the area are bringing the US ever closer to the Philippines, America’s oldest ally in the Pacific region since 1951. The US is continuing to find ways to fortify defences across the Pacific to deter China and counter its influence. The Philippines, a nation made up of more than 7,000 islands and islets, is situated in a prime location.



The US and the Philippines have held Balikatan, a Tagalog word for “shoulder to shoulder,” almost annually for nearly 40 years. Yet the scope and size of the exercise has been relatively limited until the last few years. The exercise’s expansion is a direct reflection of the Philippines’ acknowledgment its territorial defences are lacking.

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“Exercises are like a second language that, as you are performing the exercise, you are also sending a message to both your adversaries, your likeminded partners and other stakeholders,” Col Michael Logico, director of the joint and combined training centre of the Philippines Armed Forces and the executive agent of Balikatan.



The exercise series, which typically focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as counterterrorism mission sets, is now centred around complex operations across domains. While Balikatan was previously a bilateral event, the exercise now includes over a dozen more countries as observers or direct participants, and that number is expected to grow.

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The new president, Bongbong Marcos, has worked to rapidly strengthen relationships with the US and some other countries in the Pacific since his election in 2022.


During Balikatan in 2023, the Philippine Army wanted to conduct a littoral live-fire drill in the Ilocos Norte province, but instead was instructed to move the event south to Zambales, where there is already a military installation, due to political reasons, Logico said.


The Philippine military, along with its American and Australian partners, held a large, live-fire exercise that sank a ship off the coast of Ilocos Norte on May 8. And this year, Balikatan extended 300 nautical miles into the West Philippine Sea, Logico said.