MANILA – The Philippines and the United States concluded on Friday their annual joint military maneuvers, which this year were scaled back due to increasingly distant relations between Washington and Manila.
The 2017 Balikatan exercise, in which fewer troops participated than in previous years and which was limited to counter-terrorism and disaster combat drills, concluded at a ceremony at the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Quezon (north of Manila).
Nearly 5,400 soldiers – including 2,800 Philippine and 2,600 US troops – participated in the 12-day-long exercises, along with several others from Australia and Japan, as compared to 11,000 in 2016.
In his speech, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, General Eduardo Año, said the maneuvers have improved the joint operability of the troops, and have strengthened bilateral ties.
The 2017 Balikatan edition was limited to counter-terrorism drills for the provinces of Samar, Cagayan, Isabela, Aurora and Nueva Ecija, and disaster combat techniques, including large-scale evacuations and search and rescue operations.
The Balikatan maneuvers have been held every year since the two countries signed a mutual defense agreement in 1951.
The armed forces of both nations had annually rehearsed joint responses war-like situations, including invasions.
Exercises near the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea were also absent from this year’s drills.
Manila and Beijing are currently embroiled in a territorial dispute over the islands.
Despite the dispute, since coming to power in June 2016, Duterte has altered his country’s foreign policy by increasingly aligning with Beijing at the expense of the United States.
Manila has signed several cooperation agreements with Beijing, and has proposed strengthening bilateral defense ties.
The Balikatan exercises were held this year despite Duterte’s assertion that joint US-Filipino maneuvers in October would be the last of their kind.