Balikatan winds down

By Alexis Romero, The Philippine Star

Posted at Apr 27 2012 07:58 AM | Updated as of Apr 27 2012 06:12 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines and the United States conclude today the 28th Balikatan joint military exercises, with defense officials claiming that the war games provided new opportunities to ensure stability in the region.

US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr., Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Jessie Dellosa and Defense Undersecretary Honorio Azcueta are expected to attend the closing ceremony in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

Azcueta will represent Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who is scheduled to fly to Washington today for a dialogue with US officials on April 30.

Field exercises and humanitarian operations were held simultaneously in Palawan, Nueva Ecija and Pampanga.

“The tabletop and field training exercises have opened up new avenues and widened the horizon for new opportunities for international participation and partnership in ensuring regional security and stability,” Dellosa said in a statement.

“I would like to express my gratitude to the American soldiers and foreign partners who gave their valuable time to share their experiences, best practices, and different approaches in dealing with various types of situations and security challenges that the country might confront in the future,” he added.

This year’s Balikatan exercises started on April 16 and focused on military exercises, civic action, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response operations.

The exercises were held amid the standoff in the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal but officials clarified that the Balikatan is not connected to the territorial dispute.

The standoff, now on its 17th day, started after two Chinese vessels prevented the Philippine Navy from apprehending Chinese fishermen who had harvested endangered marine species such as coral and turtles in Philippine territory.

“The bilateral exercises are done every year. Besides, this was planned one year before. It has nothing to do with any country,” said Lt. Junior Grade Annaleah Cazcarro, a public affairs officer of the Balikatan.

At least 7,000 Filipino and American troops participated in this year’s Balikatan exercises.

Balikatan also featured command-post exercises aimed at boosting the disaster response capabilities of the Philippines and its neighbors.

The tabletop exercise simulated natural disasters and calamity scenarios to test and improve the planning, preparation, program of action and response of participating countries.

Aside from the Philippines and the US, other countries that participated in the disaster preparedness exercises were Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam.

The joint exercise also featured civil-military activities, including the engineering civic action program where engineers from the Philippines and the US constructed five school buildings in Palawan.

Officials said about 22,000 people had benefited from the development projects conducted by Balikatan participants.