March 14, 2023
MANILA — The armies of the Philippines and the United States on Monday kicked off their biggest joint drills to date, which will include “new tactics” using lessons learned from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as they prepare “to face adversaries from out of the country.”
About 3,000 soldiers from the Philippine Army and the US Army Pacific are taking part in the annual “Salaknib” (shield in Ilocano) Exercise, which was first held in 2014.
“One thing that we are learning from the Ukraine-Russia crisis or war is that you do not need a really very strong army to defend yourselves. Even with a few modern weapons, the more important thing is the will to fight,” Army chief Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of Salaknib at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija province.
The Army, the Philippine military’s largest service branch, is shifting its focus to territorial defense from insurgency amid China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and its potential invasion of Taiwan.
“We will now be training on scenarios that would require us to work together to face adversaries from out of the country,” he said.
“The [training] scenarios would involve the defense of the Philippine archipelago from potential foreign aggressors. We will focus on defense operations such as air defense and defense from the shorelines,” he added.
Japan would be sending observers for the first time, according to Brawner.
Salaknib is a prelude to the “Balikatan” exercises in April, the biggest joint military exercises between the Philippines and the United States.
This year’s Salaknib will be conducted in two phases across northern Luzon, including Fort Magsaysay, one of the first five agreed locations under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), a deal that allows the United States access to Philippine bases for joint training and prepositioning of equipment.
On Monday, lawmakers scoffed at the Chinese Embassy in Manila for warning that the expanded Edca would only “seriously harm” Philippine interests, with Sen. JV Ejercito pointing out that the Chinese government could not be trusted.
“If they want us to trust them, they have to respect our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ejercito said in a media briefing.
“They have already harassed a lot of our fishermen so many times. And now, they are doing it to our Coast Guard and Navy (personnel),” he said.
Beijing, he added, has been issuing official statements that only contradict their actions in the West Philippine Sea.
“I think they are the ones who are very aggressive and hostile. They claim to be a friend of the Philippines, but what they are doing is contrary to what they are saying,” the senator noted.
Sen. Francis Escudero suggested that China “look in the mirror” before issuing remarks on the Philippine government’s decision to add four new Edca sites.
“Isn’t what China doing [in] Taiwan and the West Philippine Sea also ‘undermining the stability of the region?’” Escudero told the Inquirer.
“We have every right… to pursue a foreign policy that serves our national interest and should not be cowed by such threats,” he said.
Sen. Jinggoy Estrada said the Philippines’ efforts to improve its security agreement with the United States were not aimed at preparing for war against any country.
“Our Balikatan exercises (with the US) are only exercises for the defense of the country and not for the invasion of China,” he stressed.
For Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III, the Philippines should “give attention [to] and ponder over” China’s warning.
“We should take time to review and reflect on the coverage of our Mutual Defense Treaty with the US,” Pimentel said.
Sen. Imee Marcos noted that it was important to determine if the chosen new Edca sites would be used by American forces for military activities should the tension between Taiwan and China result in a war.
“If these Edca sites are used as staging areas for US military intervention in Taiwan, then we may be dragged into the so-called ‘Taiwan question,’” Marcos warned.