On May 8-19, 2017, the 33rd iteration of the Balikatan Exercises between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the United States will be staged as part of the provisions of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) as supplemental to the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty. This will be so far the biggest joint military exercise under the new administration of the Presidencies of the Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump, triumphantly heralded by the American diplomatic and military leadership as a continuation of the decades-old special partnership between the two countries.
While the number of troops involved in this year’s exercises will be relatively small compared to its peak during the Aquino administration, this will still be the biggest joint military exercises under the new administration as it signals the continuity of neo-colonial relations between the two countries and indicates the persisting hollowness of President Duterte’s public statements for independent foreign policy after nine months in office.
For one, the focus on building the Philippine military’s counter-terrorism capabilities will still be the highlight of the joint military exercises that will happen in multiple locations in the archipelago. This was despite the supposed new areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief training as new areas of cooperation in the exercises. Second, the Philippine military’s subservient role in its military relations with the United States will still characterize the nature of the application of the Mutual Defense Agreement and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation in the annual exercise. This allowed the United States to have its troops for extended stays in military facilities that it is permitted to build and operate in the Philippines. Finally, the Philippine military establishment becomes the most willing customer of American military hardware for its counter-insurgency operations, and the orientation of its campaigns were assured to reflect the advice that it regularly receive from the American advisers.
The presence of American military troops is a gross affront to the sovereignty of the Philippines. It reduces the Philippine military establishment to a mere mercenary of their American hegemon and extends the military industrial domination in the region.
Moreover, the Balikatan Exercises further heightens the militarization of Southeast Asia – a region that already becomes a flashpoint of potential conflict given the increased military rivalry between and among the claimant countries that challenges each other claimants’ ownership of South China Sea or its parts. Instead of calling for the transformation of the region into a real zone of peace, freedom and neutrality (ZOPFAN) – a long standing vision of ASEAN – the military exercises heighten the tensions and subject the region closer to actual military confrontation between and among the powers.
The announced participation of troops from long standing American allies like Australia and Japan in this year’s Balikatan further heightens the strain of military and diplomatic relations with other regional players, and puts the Philippines at a closer risk of being embroiled in military expansionist ventures of many countries with strategic interests in the region.
President Duterte’s expressed views on the historical relations of the Philippines and the United States of America, as well as his take on ways to achieve peace in the Southeast Asian region are some of the few things that sets him apart from his predecessors who openly and readily embraced and perpetuated the neo-colonial relations of the two countries. Such pronouncement would only be significant to the nation, however, if substantiated with actions that challenge and reverse the existing unequal relations of the two countries, especially in the military field.
President Duterte must suspend EDCA and the annual Balikatan Joint Military Exercises as soon as possible. As the head of state, he must assert the Philippine sovereignty over its land, air and sea territory and not allow any part of the country to be part of the increased military activities of imperialist powers like the United States. He must hold fast to his proclaimed wish of preventing the escalation of conflicts in the Southeast Asia by championing the demilitarization of disputed territories in the region and be a major player in this quest.
Stop Balikatan Exercises!
US Troops Out Now!