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AFP: Balikatan to boost Malampaya security

The Armed Forces of the Philippines seeks to boost its capability to secure the Malampaya natural gas platform and oil exploration projects off Palawan province from terrorist attacks by training with American troops in their bilateral military exercises.

The latest large-scale joint military exercises between the Philippines and the United States, dubbed Balikatan, formally opened on Monday.

Rear Adm. Victor Martir, Balikatan exercise director for the Philippines, said the combined 6,000-strong forces would take part in 60 training events in Luzon and Palawan until April 27.

He particularly cited the forthcoming training in search-and-rescue operations, and gas and oil platform-security operations.

Amphibious training exercises under Balikatan have been held before in Palawan, which faces the West Philippine Sea where the Philippines is locked in an increasingly tense territorial dispute with China over the Spratly group of islands.

Asked why training exercises were being held in Palawan again, Martir said the Philippine military wanted to improve on securing Malampaya.

“This is a competency that the Armed Forces would like to improve on. Now that we have gas and oil platforms, it is the competency that we would like to enhance,” he told reporters at the opening ceremony held in Camp Aguinaldo.

9-magnitude quake

Exercise director for the United States, Brigadier General Frederick Padilla highlighted the tabletop exercise component that would simulate disaster response in case a 9.0-magnitude earthquake hits Metro Manila.

Martir reiterated that the kind of exercises for this year’s Balikatan were firmed up several months ago.

“The Scarborough (Panatag Shoal) incident and Balikatan are two separate activities. One is an incident. This is an annual activity that we hold together with the US Armed Forces,” he said.

Last week, the Philippines sent its biggest warship to  Scarborough Shoal about 230 kilometers west of Luzon where eight Chinese fishing boats had been seen.

China deployed three vessels to stop Philippine personnel from arresting the fishermen, and the dispute escalated with both countries launching protests and trading accusations that the other was violating their sovereign territory.

While the fishing boats left the shoal over the weekend, both nations are continuing to assert their sovereignty over the area, which is many hundreds of kilometers from the nearest major Chinese landmass.

Support for weaker ally

“As we have reiterated every year in our speeches, Balikatan is for the improvement, enhancement of our combat readiness and our interoperability as a combined force,” Martir said.

In a speech at the opening ceremony for the exercises in Manila, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Jessie Dellosa said the war games highlighted strong US support for its weaker ally.

“Given the international situation we are in, I say that this exercise, in coordination with all those we had in the past, (is) timely and mutually beneficial,” Dellosa said.

He said the annual event “reflects the aspirations to further relations with our strategic ally, a commitment that has to be nurtured especially in the context of the evolving challenges in the region.”

Competing claims

China and Taiwan claim nearly all of the West Philippine Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.

The competing claims have for decades made the sea—where there are shipping routes vital for global trade and which is believed to hold huge deposits of fossil fuels—a potential flash point for military conflict.

While diplomatic efforts have kept the dispute from flaring into violence over recent decades, the Philippines and Vietnam said last year that China was becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claim to the sea.

The Philippines accused Chinese vessels of firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen, harassing an oil exploration vessel and laying markers in areas close to the Philippine landmass.

The Balikatan exercises are being held as the United States is rebuilding its military presence across the Asia-Pacific, partly to counter the growing political, economic and military might of China.

President Aquino said last month he was willing to help the United States in this context by allowing more joint exercises such as Balikatan.

‘Cold War mentality’

China has criticized the greater US focus on Asia, with the Chinese defense ministry describing it as proof of a “Cold War mentality.”

Padilla confirmed on Monday the exercises were part of US President Barack Obama’s plan to build a stronger military presence in the Asia-Pacific.

“The President of the United States has stated that it is the desire of our country to be engaged more in the Pacific region—that includes working with the Filipino government and the armed forces,” Padilla told reporters.

But Padilla denied the exercise was meant as a warning to China amid its dispute with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal.

“This exercise is, from our standpoint, not linked to any particular situation,” Padilla said.
Asked if China should be alarmed, US Marine Lieutenant Colonel Curtis Hill said at a news conference that the exercises would not focus on any nation as an adversary.

“There is no reason for anyone to feel threatened by us coming together, working through our interoperabilities so we can better respond and help people across the region,” Hill said.

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