The United Kingdom may be participating as an observer as the Philippines and United States look to resume full-scale joint military exercises next year after they were disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak, senior Filipino and American military officials indicated Thursday.
Last month, the U.K. along with the U.S. and Australia agreed to a trilateral military pact widely seen as being aimed at blunting China’s military might and expansionism in the contested South China Sea.
Balikatan, a Filipino word that means “shoulder to shoulder,” is an annual, large-scale bilateral exercise between the U.S. and the Philippines, long-time defense allies. It was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic, but a series of drills on a much smaller scale were staged this year.
If and when the drills resume at full scale in 2022, the United Kingdom will likely send a “small contingent to observe” and join Australia and Japan – which have attended as observer-nations in recent years – on the sidelines, said Gen. Jose Faustino Jr., the Philippines’ top military officer.
“I think there are ongoing talks of the U.K. participating as an observer for Balikatan 2022, that will be next year,” Faustino told reporters after meeting in Manila on Thursday with Adm. John Aquilino, head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Troops from Britain, Australia, and Japan would only attend the exercise under “observer status” because Manila does not have a military agreement with those three countries that is similar to its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States.
“It helps the nations who have not participated in these larger complex events understand the intricacies, the commitments, the preparation” in conducting these events, Aquilino said, referring to the role of observer nations.
Faustino spoke to reporters after he and Aquilino presided over a meeting of the Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board.
“We will go full-scale ‘Balikatan’ next year,” the state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA) quoted the commander of the Philippine armed forces as saying.
“I believe we will look to renew and get back to a full-scale event, and we will both look for opportunities to increase the complexity, the scope all the way to look towards new partners participating in the future,” Aquilino said, according to PNA.
The announcement to potentially include a British military contingent as an observer in the next Balikatan came weeks after the signing of the Australia-U.K.-U.S. defense agreement, which is otherwise known as AUKUS.
Security analysts say the partnership would help Australia develop nuclear submarines and help deter China’s aggressive military posturing in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, one of the claimant countries in the disputed waterway, has expressed its backing for AUKUS, but neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia have voiced concerns about this new military development close to their shores.
The AUKUS agreement, Aquilino said, is an “agreement among allies to further increase the capability of the undersea environment to maintain the peace, stability, and security in the region.”
“This region is extremely important. We have just seen multiple EU nations deployed to the region, and the AUKUS agreement will ensure that security is maintained throughout the region,” he said.
While all countries enjoy the freedom of navigation, the AUKUS agreement would help to maintain a “rules-based international order,” said the top American military commander in the region.
The Philippines acknowledges the right of every country to develop their defense capabilities, Faustino said, but he emphasized that everyone must adhere to the law.
During the meeting, both sides also discussed the possibility of allowing temporary U.S. bases in the Philippines, a former American colony, Faustino indicated. The U.S. military could use three Philippine bases – one on the main Philippine island of Luzon and one in the southern Mindanao region – as forward operating bases to store its equipment, Faustino said.
“There is no final list of what the probable sites will be, but we are looking at different areas, and we are considering, of course, how it will be beneficial to our armed forces and to the United States Armed Forces also,” the Filipino military chief said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
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