PH-US 'Balikatan' amphibious war games held facing China, Taiwan

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Courtesy: SN2 Mark Jade Autencio PN/CRS,AFP

Claveria, Cagayan (CNN Philippines, April 1) — Hundreds of Filipino and American troops descended on this remote coastal corner of Northern Luzon on Thursday to conduct the largest-ever joint military drills in a region sharing sea borders with China and Taiwan, both currently locked in heightened tensions.

However, Col. Timothy Brady, Jr., commanding officer of the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) of the United States Marine Corps, was quick to point out that the beach landing exercise, which is part of this year's iteration of the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) war games, is geared toward "strengthening our relationships and developing our shared capabilities together" with their Filipino counterparts.

"It is not executed as part of any current global situation,” Brady assured. “We've been executing these exercises for several decades at this point.”

In a simulated drill, Philippine and U.S. soldiers perform troop insertions using amphibious assault vehicles and helicopters to carry out a mock mission of either recapturing a territory from the enemy or defending it from an external threat.

Coastal defense is a key term in this year's bilateral war games.

"It's high time na siguro na itong mga unfolding events naririnig natin internationally -- hindi natin alam baka madamay tayo. At least we are ready," said Major General Laurence Mina, commander of the Philippine Army's 5th Infantry Division, when asked on the importance of highlighting coastal defense as part of the capability training drills for Balikatan 22.

[Translation: It's high time that perhaps with these unfolding events that we hear internationally, we don't know we might get dragged into the conflict.]

Being the highest ranking Filipino military officer in the region, Mina was invited to observe the event. "Even though it’s just an exercise, masasabi natin deterrence ito [we can say this is deterrence]," he pointed out.

Balikatan 22 organizers decided to scrap a planned live-fire exercise in Cagayan, after the provincial government opposed the use of gunfire in the conduct of the joint drills, fearing it could anger China.

It was moved to Capas, Tarlac and held simultaneously with the Cagayan event.

The war games extended from the coastal towns of Aparri to Claveria, located roughly 556 kilometers from mainland Taiwan.

"I consider Taiwan a powder keg, since alam naman natin yung sinabi ni President Xi Jinping na [we know what President Xi Jinping has said that] they'll recover Taiwan at whatever cost-- any cost. So, I don't want my province to be involved," Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba told CNN Philippines by phone.

The governor said he would rather pursue "more economic ties" with both China and Taiwan, asserting that they are neighbors, "whether we like it or not."

Filipino and American military officials have repeatedly reiterated that Balikatan is designed to enhance defense cooperation between two long-time allies, and its range of battlefield scenarios do not target a specific enemy.