Ten days of mock combat operations throughout the Philippines came to an end last week as Exercise Balikatan 15 (BK15) wrapped up.
The Balikatan (which in the Filipino language Tagalog means "shoulder-to-shoulder") exercises have been a staple of American-Filipino relations since 1998, six years after the closure of two enormous American military installations in the Philippines. This is the 32nd Balikatan event — in the wake of 9/11, the exercises were held several times a year, though it has been an annual event in recent years — and comes at an interesting time both for the Philippines and the region as a whole.
This year's exercises overlap with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Washington DC and the increased Japanese-American military cooperation that was agreed during Abe's visit. BK15 may also serve to light a fire underneath the stalled US-Philippine military cooperation agreement, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which is currently languishing in the hands of the Philippines Supreme Court.
In April of 2014, President Barack Obama visited the Philippines and witnessed the signing of the EDCA between the US Ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, and the Philippine Defense Secretary, Voltaire Gazman. The agreement promised greater integration between American and Filipino forces, training and modernization for the latter, and perhaps the most significant of all, the right of the US to operate out of eight Filipino Army facilities spread across the nation.
This last clause was what landed the EDCA in court. Numerous Filipinos still equate American bases with imperialism, recalling both the bloody conquest of the islands during the Philippine-American War of 1899 to 1902, and, much more recently, the unwavering US support for dictator Ferdinand Marcos' rule by martial law from 1972 to 1986.
Three separate petitions were filed in opposition to the EDCA, and their common argument challenged the constitutionality of the deal. In particular it questions the right of the Philippines President Benigno Aquino III — the son of Benigno Aquino Jr (whose assassination played a part in Marcos' ouster) and Corazon Aquino (who replaced Marcos as President of the Philippines) — to unilaterally alter the existing 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and 1998 Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement by agreeing to the provisions of the EDCA without the approval of the Philippine Senate.
The idea of allowing US forces to operate out of bases in the Philippines, even at facilities still nominally owned and operated by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, is still controversial. Indeed, an effigy of Obama was burned last year among demonstrations decrying American imperialism.
Even though the Philippine Supreme Court heard arguments for the case back in November of 2014, more than five months later they have yet to render a verdict. Court watchers in the Philippines suggest that a decision may be issued in June. The year-long delay imposed by the court, to say nothing of further delays should the court rule against the EDCA, could prove costly for the Philippines in their ongoing dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea, depriving them of a sabre that can be rattled on their behalf.
In the year since the signing, the Chinese have built an artificial island in the area to serve as both a naval and airbase. Two of the bases the EDCA would allow the Americans to operate from are on the island of Palawan, only 60 miles from the disputed islands. In 2014, the Philippines went to international court to seek third party arbitration on the territorial dispute.
China, of course, sees the situation differently. Beijing claims ownership of a vast swath of islands and ocean throughout the region adjacent to several other nations and hundreds of miles from its own borders. The Chinese ignored the court entirely, rejecting the idea that the court even had jurisdiction in the first place.
Instead, the Chinese went ahead with their building project, claiming sovereignty over the area being built on. While they stubbornly insist on ownership of the South China Sea, the Chinese have tried to soften the blow somewhat. Speaking on a conference call with his American counterpart, the head of the Chinese Navy, Admiral Wu Shengli, downplayed the military implications of the new bases. Instead, he emphasized their value for search and rescue and disaster relief.
"We welcome international organizations, the US and relevant countries to use these facilities, when conditions are ripe, to conduct cooperation on humanitarian rescue and disaster relief," he said.
This soft sell of the controversial outposts makes for a telling contrast to China's near-simultaneous condemnation of BK15 as inflammatory. China hasn't always been down on the Balikatan. Indeed, the Chinese even participated in an 11-nation humanitarian aid conference as a part of Balikatan 2013. But that was then. This time around, Geng Yansheng, a Chinese military spokesman said, "There are always some people hyping 'China threat'. Under current circumstances, when there is such a large-scale military drill, we can't help asking: who is making tension in the region and threatening peace and stability?"
It's a good question, and one made even more relevant by China's upcoming military exercises with Russia. Besides the annual drills the two nations have with one another in the Pacific, China and Russia recently announced that they would be holding their first combined exercises in the Mediterranean Sea. If, as the Chinese say, the land-based Balikatan exercises are "threatening peace and stability," how are European, African, and Middle Eastern nations supposed to interpret large scale naval exercises by China and Russia in their own backyards?
Follow Jonathan Gad on Twitter: @jng2058