The US and the Philippines will conduct their largest-ever annual military exercises together in April amid heightened tensions with China, Reuters reported Tuesday.
The annual Balikatan exercises will be held from April 11 to 28, and about 17,600 military personnel will take part, including 12,000 US troops. About 111 Australian soldiers will also take part.
“This is officially the largest Balikatan exercise,” said Philippine Col. Michael Logico, a spokesman for the exercises. He said the drills will include “live-fire exercises into the water” for the first time. The previous largest Balikatan exercise took place in 2015 when more than 11,000 troops participated.
The planned exercises come after the US signed a deal with the Philippine government of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., which gives the US access to four more military bases in the Philippines, part of Washington’s military buildup against China.
The exercises will be held across the Philippines, including in Palawan, a province on the South China Sea, disputed waters that are the source of tensions between Beijing and Manila.
Chinese and Philippine vessels often have stand-offs in the South China Sea, and the US always uses the incidents to remind Bejing that the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty applies to attacks on Philippine boats. This means if the maritime dispute between China and the Philippines ever turns hot, the US would intervene.
In February, the Philippines claimed a Chinese vessel pointed a “military-grade laser” at a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with his Philippine counterpart about the incident and reaffirmed that “an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, aircraft, and public vessels, including those of its Coast Guard, anywhere in the South China Sea, would invoke US mutual defense commitments.”