On May 8, the United States and the Philippines kicked off the 33rd iteration of their biggest annual bilateral exercise known as Balikatan, the first one held since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office last June (See: “What to Expect From the 2017 US-Philippines Balikatan Military Exercise”). Balikatan 2017 will last until May 19.
As Balikatan 2017 has been playing out, media attention has largely been on the fact that the exercise has been “scaled down” and refocused on fields like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and counterterrorism, with usually more visible live-fire components downplayed. Balikatan has been one of the early victims of Duterte’s desire to rebalance Philippine foreign policy, which has meant less dependence on its traditional ally the United States relative to newer partners like China and Russia and has led to the cancellation of some bilateral drills and the refocusing of others (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s US-China Rebalance”).
The change is no doubt a damper for the Balikatan exercises, and that is clear to close observers. As I have observed previously, it bucks the trend of expansion we have seen during the past few iterations under Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino III, whether it be in terms of numbers, such as the doubling of the size of the war games in 2015, or specific firsts, be it Ash Carter becoming the first ever U.S. defense secretary to observe the Balikatan in 2016 or the involvement of two M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) units which were being deployed for the first time (See: “What Will The Biggest US-Philippines Military Exercise Look Like Under Duterte”).
But at the opening ceremony of Balikatan 2017 last week, both U.S. and Philippine officials stressed that what had been preserved was nonetheless still very valuable. In his remarks, Lt. Gen Lawrence Nicholson, the Balikatan exercise director on the U.S. side, emphasized that the training that was happening in areas like counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance and disaster and relief was “beneficial” and “critically important.” Philippine defense officials also made the same point, despite candidly admitting that the exercise had changed due to the political guidance they had gotten from the Duterte administration.
It’s far from surprising that officials from both sides would try to downplay the scaled down nature of Balikatan 2017 and put a positive spin on what they are able to do this year. But at the same time, U.S. and Philippine officials also do have a point when they stress that what has been preserved still proves useful for a number of reasons.
First and most obviously, irrespective of the specific scenario involved each time which does tend to shift in any case – be it territorial defense in 2016 which featured launching an amphibious operation on a hypothetical South China Sea island, or responding to a super typhoon this year – there are important advances made in terms of enhancing interoperability between the two militaries as well as the exchange of tactics, techniques, and procedures required to confront challenges jointly.
Second, though it may not grab as many headlines as the South China Sea, the focus on counterterrorism as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is important in its own right. A point often missed with all the focus on the South China Sea is that the Philippines also faces a number of other important threats, including terrorism, insurgency, piracy, and climate change.
The Philippines is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, and it is no surprise that at the opening ceremony for Balikatan 2017, exercise co-director Lieutenant General Oscar Lactao made reference to Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest Philippine typhoon on record which killed over 6,000 people when it hit back in November 2013. It has also long been a hub for terrorism and piracy and is still at the center of these threats, be it worries about the establishment of a Islamic State base in the Philippines or tackling transnational crimes in the Sulu-Sulawesi seas. (See: “Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges”).
These are concerns for the United States too. On HADR, apart from the fact that the United States has assisted the Philippines when such disasters hit, they also factor into military planning more generally for similar calamities. Indeed, as Nicholson, who co-directed Balikatan 2017 with Lactao, related during the ceremony, during the week before the exercises, he and others had been preparing for what might have been a big super typhoon in Vanuatu that eventually did not come to pass.
Similarly, Washington also remains very concerned about threats like terrorism and piracy in Southeast Asia and the Philippines in particular. Indeed, last June, Washington used the window between the bilateral phases of its Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT) exercises to conduct a coordinated multilateral training activity in the Sulu Sea with the Philippine and Malaysian navies (See: “Can China Patrols Help Duterte in the Philippines’ Terror War?”) (For now, CARAT has been nixed by Duterte).
Third and finally, the utility of Balikatan 2017 is demonstrated by the continuity of its growing multilateralization, a point that often goes underappreciated. Much like the trajectory of the Cobra Gold exercises, Balikatan has increasingly evolved from a purely bilateral exercise to one where other U.S. allies and partners like Japan and Australia can either participate to varying degrees or at least attend as observers (See: “Why the Philippines is Critical to the US Rebalance in Asia“).
That continued this year, with Japan and Australia participating in all major training events and eight ASEAN nations also observing the exercises. This multilateralization is admittedly still in its early stages, and the numbers from Tokyo and Canberra are quite small (20 and 80 respectively). But Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was present at the inaugural Balikatan exercise and served as its co-director before being posted as defense attaché in the United States, said that there may be the possibility of even greater participation of Australia and Japan in the Balikatan exercises in the future.
Though that point was missed by many mainstream media outlets, Lorenzana’s emphasis on the future is important. As I have emphasized before, this is just the first year of Duterte’s six-year term, and with the Philippines’ ties with major powers still in flux – including Manila’s ongoing South China Sea disputes with Beijing – Balikatan could once again see a refocusing to other areas like maritime security or even a scaling up in the following years.
As a case in point of how quickly exercises can wax and wane as bilateral relationships between the United States and Southeast Asian states evolve, consider the fact that Thailand, which initially saw its Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise with the United States suspended following the coup. The exercise was then resumed the following year and now Bangkok is one of the forward-leaning countries with which Washington is pursuing multilateralization of CARAT exercises, along with Singapore (See: “US, Singapore, Thailand Launch First Trilateral Exercise in South China Sea”).