PH, US believe defense ties will thrive as full-scale Balikatan set in 2022

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 15) — More than two months since the restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), senior military leaders of the Philippines and United States are optimistic about a "very good opportunity to push forward" much-improved defense ties, which was under strain by President Rodrigo Duterte's public criticisms of U.S. security policies in the past five years.

"The alliance is stronger today than it has ever been," Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said in a media briefing on Wednesday, shortly after meeting with General Jose Faustino, Jr., chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Aquilino and Faustino led their respective contingents for the 2021 Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) meeting held at Camp Aguinaldo.

"We now look at a very good opportunity—now that we have go signal to push forward with the VFA," said Faustino.

The militaries of both countries hold the annual forum, alternately either in Manila or in a U.S. territory, to coordinate defense and security cooperation plans for the coming years, including the conduct of an average of 300 activities every year.

"We will go full scale with Balikatan (exercises) next year," Faustino said.

For several instances within the current administration, the joint drills with U.S. had to be scaled down upon the orders of Duterte, who insisted on pushing for the Philippines' independent foreign policy while trying to rebuild tensed relations with China over the maritime dispute in the West Philippine Sea.

Aside from significantly reducing the number of participating troops—averaging to hundreds and even thousands—several training activities were either downgraded or canceled altogether.

The COVID-19 pandemic further crippled the conduct of exercises, forcing organizers to scrap face-to-face interactions and instead hold these virtually due to health protocols.

After Duterte withdrew his decision to terminate the VFA in late July, and with just several months before he steps down from office, the two long-time defense allies can now see a return to holding large-scale war games.

"We now look at a very good opportunity—now that we have go signal to push forward with the VFA," said Faustino, pointing out that there are plans "to involve" other "like-minded countries" in the war games.

"We are trying to look at expanding it some more to other allies that we have in the region," he added.

Aside from Australia and Japan, which have been deploying small contingents of troops to bilateral exercises, the Philippines is also eyeing at troops from the United Kingdom to take part during next year's Balikatan. But like Japan, which does not have a defense treaty with the Philippines, U.K. can only participate as observers.

U.S. and U.K. joined Australia in September to set up a trilateral security alliance dubbed as AUKUS to form a closer defense partnership in Asia amid the South China Sea dispute.

The Philippine government has been sending mixed signals on its stance about the newly formed alliance, while most nations in Southeast Asia are seemingly divided on their views about the agreement, with some expressing alarm over the presence of nuclear submarines in regional waters.

"We acknowledge those rights, just as they acknowledge ours. The key word here is rules-based international order. So we will benefit from that," Faustino said, voicing his support for the AUKUS agreement.