After COVID-19, bad weather spoils PH-US naval exercise

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 20) — When the Philippines and United States navies canceled a major military exercise over coronavirus fears last year, they were looking forward to resuming it this year, along with allied forces, only to be disrupted again by another obstacle beyond their control - bad weather.

Military Training Activity (MTA) Sama Sama (formerly known as Cooperation Afloat Readiness Training or CARAT Exercise) - scheduled from October 10 to 15 - kicked off through an online ceremony with participants from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and French Navy as observers.

The annual maritime exercise has been going on for almost three decades but was scaled down in 2016 when President Rodrigo Duterte came into office.

Duterte initially ordered an end to all joint drills with the US, driven by his desire to appease China, amid its maritime dispute with the Philippines over territories in the South China Sea.

But the two long-time allies managed to only cut down the exercises by reducing the number of participants, especially US servicemen, and limiting its scope by giving more emphasis on training activities like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.

Last year's MTA Sama Sama was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organizers were hoping to resume shore-based and at-sea activities this year, even if a US Navy vessel had to perform a "contactless" port visit to Subic, and participants had to hold online interactions with subject matter experts due to COVID-19 restrictions.

But two weather systems - Severe Tropical Storm Maring and Tropical Depression Nando - made sea conditions too dangerous to conduct the naval exercise.

"There were predictions between 15- to 25-foot seas. And that doesn't make it conducive to do at-sea events," US Navy Captain Tom Ogden told journalists during a teleconference on Tuesday.

"So, in coordination with our AFP partners and our French partners, we made the decision to not do the sea-phase."

MTA Sama Sama, along with other joint PH-US war games, are expected to resume "full scale" in 2022, as announced by senior Filipino and American military officials during a recent meeting in Manila. [LINK: PH, US believe defense ties will thrive as full-scale Balikatan set in 2022]

PH hosts key naval engagement next week

Meanwhile, the Philippine Navy will host its first Western Pacific Naval Symposium on October 26 and 27, it announced on Wednesday.

The virtual forum is themed, "Effective Ocean Governance for Regional Partnership and Stability."

The biennial symposium - launched in 1988 and now on its 17th iteration - will bring together close to 30 naval leaders and representatives from different nations within and bordering the Pacific, including some observers, to promote trust and cooperation among navies in the region.

The Philippines was supposed to host the multinational summit in May last year, but was postponed because of the crippling effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

The forum, which usually coincides with the International Fleet Review (IFR), would have seen Manila Bay hosting a parade of ships, submarines and aircraft, including naval powerhouses like US and its rivals China and Russia - also a first for the country.

According to a Navy official, there was a proposal to move the IFR to the fourth quarter of 2020, but the uncertain travel outlook due to the pandemic forced organizers to scrap it altogether.