The Latest Balikatan Exercise and the Situation in the Philippines

The current Balikatan military exercises between the US and the Philippines (“balikatan” is a Tagalog word meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder”), which began on March 28 and will last until the end of April, are an event of wide-ranging significance, and thus deserve this author’s attention. First and foremost, because of the Philippines’ geographical location in the region where the world powers’ struggle for influence has been playing out with unremitting intensity over the last two decades.

Until the mid-2010s that “red zone” could be defined in terms of the ten South East Asian countries, including the Philippines, which had participated in these exercises on an annual basis for many years. But in 2016 the progressive Democratic Party, headed by the current President Tsai Ing-wen, came into power in Taiwan, triggering an escalation in a long-dormant problem – China’s increasingly apparent determination – vehemently opposed by the US – to put an end to what it describes as “Taiwanese separatism”.

As a result the epicenter of the standoff between the two main global superpowers has expanded, and now includes Taiwan. This “new” factor, largely the result of China’s increasingly belligerent conduct in the immediate vicinity of Taiwan, now forms the focus of the current Balikatan exercises.

However, the “red zone” is also expanding northwards. To cite just one example, in recent years the East China Sea has been the scene of heightened conflict, particularly around the Senkaku/Diaoyujdao Islands, controlled by Japan and claimed by China. In many different ways, Japan too has also long been establishing itself as a key player in South East Asia. The Philippines are one of the countries in the region that Japan has a particular interest in. On April 9 this year the first meeting between the two nations’ Foreign and Defense Ministers is scheduled to take place. It should be noted that “2+2” meetings of this type are generally a sign of a high level of trust between two countries.

Overall, Japan’s policies in relation to South East Asia are taking on a more militaristic tone. That applies both to its relations with individual countries in the region, and its partnership with the US, its key ally. Last year the US and Japan led a number of naval exercises in the South China Sea.

In conducting such exercises in the South China Sea, 80-90% of which is claimed by China, the two allies are sending the latter country an unmistakable and clearly confrontational message. Washington and Tokyo’s position is based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in a case brought by the Philippines in 2013, in which the Court found in favor of the claimant and dismissed China’s claim of “historical rights” over the South China Sea.

Significantly, back in 2013 the Philippines had a strongly pro-American government, led by former President Benigno Aquino III. Manila’s case against China was based on the latter’s territorial claims over islands in the South China Sea, but it was also clearly motivated by what was already an established geopolitical reality – the global stand-off between China and the US.

However, just two months before the Court in the Hague issued its decision, the situation in the Philippines changed dramatically with the election of the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, who promised in his election campaign to dramatically reduce his country’s dependence on the US and bring it closer to China.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the Court, which had delayed issuing a ruling for three years, finally found in favor of the Philippines shortly after the change of government. The ruling, naturally presented the country’s new president with an extremely inconvenient political dilemma.

For the first two years of his six-year term Rodrigo Duterte attempted to follow his promised anti-American and pro-Chinese course – although in reality this was mostly a matter of rhetoric. However, since it was first issued the Hague Court’s ruling against China has taken on a new political significance.

Rodrigo Duterte’s government has had to face a number of other serious problems – none of which can be put down to chance or the “natural course of events”. Perhaps the most significant of these has been the major propaganda campaign led by western countries, primarily the US, who have accused Philippines of human rights abuses in connection with the “excesses” resulting from Rodrigo Duterte’s fight against drugs business – one of his main campaign promises. It should be noted that the majority of the country’s citizens have raised no objections to the (frequently illegal) methods used by their new president in his fight against this social evil – a fight he began before his election, when he served as Mayor of Davao, one of the most important cities in the Philippines.

In May 2017 a previously obscure Islamic terrorist group affiliated with DAESH (an organization prohibited in the Russian Federation) started carrying out attacks on the island of Mindanao. These attacked did not at first appear to be very significant, but the incident developed into a serious armed conflict which lasted several months. In order to put an end to the hostilities the government had to seek the assistance of special forces from the US.

And by the end of the year the earlier trend had reestablished itself and relations between the US and the Philippines were restored to their previous state. Then the aggressive propaganda campaign directed personally against Rodrigo Duterte was dropped. Both his government and the radical Islamists ceased to be of any concern.

It can now be confidently stated that relations between the US and the Philippines have to all intents and purposes returned to the state in which they were immediately before Rodrigo Duterte took office. Last year’s visit to the Philippines by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin provided ample proof of the change. During the talks between Lloyd Austin and Rodrigo Duterte, the latter reconfirmed all the defense agreements previously concluded between the two countries.

The above background provides some perspective to the news agency reports on the “unprecedented scale” of the latest Balikatan exercises. There have been exercises of this scale in the past. And not so long ago. Specifically, they took place in spring 2016, that is, two months before Rodrigo Duterte came to power.

Finally, it bears focusing on the timing of the current exercises. They are taking place shortly before this year’s elections, scheduled for May 9, in which a new president will be elected. In autumn last year, Rodrigo Duterte, who is constitutionally barred from standing for the presidency a second time, announced that he would stand for the post of vice-president.

However, shortly afterwards he made another announcement – that he intended to retire from politics completely. His daughter, Sara Duterte, currently mayor of Davao City, the position previously held by her father, put herself forward as a candidate for the presidency.

But now she appears to have reined in her political ambitions slightly, and is running for the post of vice-president. In the election campaign she will run alongside presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. He is the son of the former President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. – whose memory is still widely honored in the Philippines – and his (equally popular) wife Imelda Marcos. The Marcos-Duterte team will stand against a pair of opposition candidates.

But, whatever the results of the upcoming general elections, it is safe to assume that there will be no repeat of the brief attempt to throw off American influence that occurred during the first part of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency.

Both the scale and the nature of the ongoing Balikatan exercises between the US and the Philippines are ample proof of that.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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