Troops from the Philippines and United States on Monday kicked off a major annual bilateral training exercise that was cancelled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Balikatan (or shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises opened with a simple ceremony at the Philippines’ military headquarters.
The joint training came as Manila and Washington were stepping up cooperation amid concern over Chinese ships stationed in the Whitsun Reef in the disputed South China Sea.
Armed Forces chief Cirilito Sobejana said this year’s Balikatan involves only 1,700 troops – 700 from the U.S. and 1,000 from the Philippines.
About 7,500 troops took part in the last exercise in 2019 – 4,000 on the Philippine side and 3,500 on the U.S. side.
The Philippine defence department said because of the pandemic, this year’s exercise is “a very scaled-down version.”
The Balikatan was meant to improve the interoperability of U.S. and Philippine forces in territorial defence, counter-terrorism and humanitarian and disaster response.
After Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, suspended Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Washington in February last year, it was thought the 2020 exercises would be the last.
The VFA, signed in 1998, allowing the presence of U.S. troops in the country for drills.
However, Duterte has since suspended the notice of termination twice.
In a Sunday phone call, Manila and Washington’s defence secretaries, Delfin Lorenzana and Lloyd Austin, reiterated the importance of the VFA and discussed cooperation amid challenges posed by China’s maritime activities.