Over 17K troops to join largest PH-US ‘Balikatan’ exercises

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 14) — More than 17,000 Filipino and American troops are expected to join this year’s “Balikatan,” described as the largest iteration of the joint training exercises.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said there will be around 17,600 personnel from both countries, including some 12,000 from the United States.

Meanwhile, a hundred more from the Australian defense force will join and take part in smaller events, mostly land-based exercises, said Balikatan 2023 spokesman Col. Michael Logico.

“This is officially the largest Balikatan exercise,” the official told reporters, adding that the activities will be held in Northern Luzon, Palawan and Antique.

Logico noted that apart from the usual exercises, there will also be activities on cyber defense which weren’t done in previous years.

He added that the Philippines will hold live-fire exercises in waters with American troops for the first time.

“It has always been an interoperability exercise to test our concepts for maritime defense, for coastal defense and maritime domain awareness…So ‘yun ang [those are the] themes of the exercise,” he said.

Logico refused to answer if the larger scale of exercises has something to do with rising tensions between Manila and Beijing over the West Philippine Sea, where there have been reports of steady increase in Chinese activities that prevent the movement of Philippine ships and fishermen.

“We have the absolute, inalienable right to defend our territory,” he said. “We are here to practice. We are here to show that we are combat-ready.”

During the visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last month, Manila and Washington announced an agreement to expand US military presence by giving American troops access to four new sites in the country. The locations have yet to be announced.

Austin also said he discussed with Philippine officials concrete actions to address destabilizing activities in waters surrounding the Philippines, including the West Philippine Sea.

“This is part of our effort to modernize our alliance, and these efforts are especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.