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Balikatan 2019 Was About Small-Scale War With China

April 30, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

As the latest inarguable proof that the Philippines and the US are steadfast allies in the face of global disorder, this year’s annual Balikatan (translates as “solidarity”) exercises focused on actual warfighting rather than humanitarian missions. The latter became a preference since 2017 when President Rodrigo Duterte, whose admiration for China is hardly secret, threatened to sever relations with Washington, DC. Duterte has lambasted his country’s historic ally on many occasions, accusing the US of “bullying” and genocide.

Yet during the two weeks of Balikatan 2019, whose schedule lasted from April 1 until 12, several thousand allied troops participated in battles that bore little resemblance to the “counter-terror” threat emphasized by official press releases.

Before the official start of Balikatan 2019 the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) revealed 4,000 of its personnel were participating together with 3,500 US soldiers from all branches. A minor presence for the duration of the exercises were 50 Australian soldiers whose roles were confined to humanitarian jobs in four rural locations.

One of the highlights during Balikatan 2019 was a patrol conducted by the US Marine Corps’ amphibious assault ship, the USS Wasp, together with the Philippine Navy’s (PN) own LPD the BRP Tarlac and the frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz. (The latter is a decommissioned US Coast Guard ship.) The USS Wasp carried F-35B’s as it sailed across an unidentified portion of the West Philippine Sea before scheduled amphibious exercises in San Antonio, a secluded beach in Zambales, Central Luzon.

The US Indo-Pacific Command did confirm the USS Wasp traveled in the South China Sea although whether or not it was joined by escorts is speculative. If it did, which the USINDOPACOM kept mum about, the action almost counts as a FONOP, where US and allied warships sail in the disputed waters to negate China’s claim over them.

What defined Balikatan 2019 were two separate mock battles that showed the Philippine military training for conventional warfare in a sudden departure from its usual focus on battling insurgents. In the second week of the exercises, a joint Filipino-US force launched a heliborne air assault on an airstrip in Lubang Island off Mindoro. The location is a remote Philippine Air Force (PAF) facility and the exercise tasked the participants with seizing the location from a “hostile occupier” as well as house-to-house room clearing and hostage rescue.

The other mock battle in Luzon assumed an epic scale. Foreign observers from Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United Kingdom along with local media were invited to witness a combined arms demonstration bringing together PAF and US Air Force assets such as the aging OV-10 Bronco and the A-10 Thunderbolt launching airstrikes. Columns of APCs and armored cars then delivered troops to the battle area amid deafening gunfire.

The elephant in the room during Balikatan 2019 was China, whose own personnel didn’t attend any of the exercises. Although the PN sent its other LPD transport to join the PLAN’s own peacebuilding naval exercises in the waters off Qingdao, what took place in Lubang Island and San Antonio were far-removed from the counter-insurgency doctrine US advisers have always tried to impart to their Filipino allies. Local journalists covering Balikatan 2019 were quick to bring up the situation in the Spratly Islands; a helicopter assault on an airstrip does look like a practice run for retaking Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys if it ever falls under enemy control.

Amphibious operations are another clear signal of upcoming war scenarios as each flashpoint in East and Southeast Asia brings marine forces to the thick of the fighting. In a hypothetical clash between Beijing and Tokyo over remote islets, for example, the arrival of marine units in these locations can decide who–and who doesn’t–hold the physical territory being disputed. Large contingents of marines are vital to China’s global ambitions too besides the longstanding goal of “unifying” with Taiwan. Among ASEAN militaries, marine capabilities are being strengthened to anticipate the likelihood of tomorrow’s high tech wars.

It’s no surprise the Philippines own marines got a boost from Balikatan 2019 as they practiced alongside their American counterparts. This was needed to familiarize them with the AAV-7, an amphibious transport with seating for 25 passengers, since they’re expecting deliveries of the same vehicles before the year ends. The Philippines ordered its AAV’s from South Korea and these enhance the marines’ ability to deploy and fight in distant locations.

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