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Balikatan Games Begin In Palawan

The joint Philippines-United States war games that start in Palawan today are not a show of force against China, whose ships were involved in a standoff with Philippine naval vessels in the Scarborough Shoal last week.

Deputy Presidential Spokeswoman Abigail Valte made that clear yesterday, saying the government is committed to seeking a diplomatic solution to the impasse with China without necessarily involving the US.

Interviewed on government radio, Valte said the Balikatan exercises were scheduled long before the incident in the shoal.

''This has nothing to do with the incident in Panatag Shoal because the exercises are always scheduled in advance,'' she said in Filipino. Panatag is the Filipino name for the Scarborough Shoal.

Valte said she hopes that the military exercises will not provoke China.

Asked if the government will ask Washington to state its position on the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China, Valte said: ''The concentration is how to solve the incident through diplomatic means.''

''We have maintained our claim, our jurisdiction over Panatag Shoal, but having said that, we must always resort to diplomatic solution to settle the incident,'' she said.

The standoff started after the Philippine Navy tried to arrest Chinese fishermen caught poaching in the shoal. Two Chinese marine vessels stopped the Philippine Navy from arresting the fishermen.

Tension eased after the fishermen were allowed to leave the area with their harvest of clams, live sharks and corals.

Maj. Emmanuel Garcia, Armed Forces the Philippines (AFP) spokesman for the Balikatan, said the Scarborough incident will not affect the joint bilateral exercises.

''As far as the AFP is concerned, this incident will not hinder us from conducting our joint military undertaking between the US Armed Forces,'' Garcia said.

He also said the Balikatan should not be construed as a provocation to any nation because it is purely an exercise designed to improve the interoperability between the Philippine and US forces.

''We hope that the Balikatan will not fuel any misunderstanding as this joint military interoperability exercise was planned a long time ago and the conduct of the exercise is not in any way related to the issue on Scarborough shoal nor on the Spratly misunderstanding,'' Garcia said.

Balikatan 12 formally opens today in a ceremony that will be attended by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr.; Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Jessie D. Dellosa, Col. Kevin D. Clark, head of the Joint US Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG), and several top security officials and advisers.

The exercises will run until April 27 and will also involve Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HA/DR) Training.

The opening ceremony to be held at the Armed Forces of the Philippines Commissioned Officers' Club (AFPCOC) will feature the unfurling of the Balikatan flag and messages from US Exercise Director Lt. Gen. Duane D. Thiessen and Rear Admiral Victor Emmanuel C. Martir from the AFP.

Invited to the ceremony are Senator Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the Senate Committee on National Defense and Security; Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, chairman of the House Committee on National Defense and Security; Rep. Al Francis DC Bichara, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; and Undersecretary Edilberto Adan, Executive Director of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement Commission.

Science and Technology Secretary Mario Montejo is also expected to attend, along with Undersecretary Jose Brillantes of the Office of Special Concerns; Assistant Secretary Patricia Ann Paez of the Office for American Affairs; Undersecretary Benito Ramos of National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC); and Francis Tolentino, chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA).

The Balikatan will be conducted simultaneously in different areas in the country. The first event is the Humanitarian and Civic Assistance projects in Palawan, designed to improve the Philippine and US military civic action cooperation, and train civil-military personnel to work together focusing on civic assistance and HA/DR.

The second event, which involves cross-training and field training exercises in mainland Luzon and Palawan, is designed to improve the interoperability of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the U.S. military.

A Command Post Exercise (CPX) will also be conducted to test the current HA/DR concept plans of the AFP and other concerned government agencies. The activity seeks to identify gaps and solutions from previous disaster situations that occurred recently in the Philippines and anticipated future calamities.

The CPX will be participated by the NDRRMC, OCD, MMDCC, AFP, United States Agency for International Development, (USAID), United States Pacific Command (USPACOM), United Nations Country Team, United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, World Food Program, International Federation of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the PRC.


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