The “historic firsts” of Balikatan 39-24

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The US says the current Balikatan 39-24 is “a first in history” as many of the activities were “unprecedented.” The Armed Forces of the Philippines also announced its supposed “shift” to external defense in accordance with the Comprehensive Archipelagic Coastal Defense (CACD) strategy as a “direct response” to China’s “aggression” in Philippine waters. This allowed the US to station offensive weapons, deploy more forces in the country, and conduct military maneuvers in the South China Sea, all under the guise of “defending” the Philippines.

For the first time, the US took the Balikatan outside Philippine territorial waters, along with French naval forces. Earlier, the US also conducted the “historic” naval maneuver with the Philippines, Australia and Japan.

It also “historically” deployed in the country and in Asia the new Typhon Missile System (TMS), consisting of four missile launchers with the capability of firing missiles to a distance of 1,600 kilometers. The US started manufacturing these missile launchers only after it scrapped in 2019 its Intermediate-Rangee Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. The US calls the TMS a “key component” of the Multi-Domain Task Forces or special military units it formed to surpass the military capabilities of China and Russia. TMS pairs with HIMARS, which was first deployed in the Philippines during Balikatan 2023.

The US introduced an Israeli-made missile defense system and its associated Patriot missiles for defensive use in official and unofficial EDCA sites.” For the first time, the current Balikatan will include the US training of AFP forces in flying surface-to-air missiles that will be used in such a defense system.

This year, the US fully utilized the “EDCA sites”, which the AFP forces hastily repaired and built since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office. One of the most used is the civilian airport in Lallo, Cagayan, as well as the port at the former Subic US Military Base and the facilities the AFP built on Balabac Island in Palawan and Mavulis island in Batanes.

China’s reaction

China does not disregard the offensive nature of the US’s latest moves in the Philippines and the South China Sea. It accused the US of pursuing “unilateral military advantage” right at its doorstep. It called the deployment of offense weapons in the Philippines dangerous because it increases the possibility of “misjudgments and miscalculations.” It says such measures are a “threat to the stability and peace” in the region.

China also admonished the Philippines to “be vigilant as to the true intentions of the US” and avoid being used without discernment. It said the Marcos government should rethink following the steps of the US at the expense of its own security.

Since its “pivot” to Asia in late 2011, the US has steadily strengthened and consolidated its dominance in the region. It increased the number of its troops deployed at its military bases in Australia, Japan and Korea. It revived its old bases and built new ones in the Philippines.

It enlarged and expanded its war games. In 2021-2023, 525 major military exercises in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Australia were recorded. The US led or participated with its allies in 60% of these. The US conducted about 87% of the major military exercises in the Philippines. The US military conduct overlapping activities in the “first-island chain” countries that are closest to China’s coasts. The US’ “pivot” to Asia in 2011 signaled to China that the period of collusion with the US was ending and that it was entering a period of rising confrontation. That early, the strategic goal of its imperialist rival to dominate Asia has been clear to China. As a countermeasure, it began to expand its military presence in the South China Sea, including the long-disputed islands near Japan (Senseku Islands), Vietnam (Paracelis) and the Philippines (Spratlys).

The “historic firsts” of Balikatan 39-24