Philippines, US kick off joint military drills amid COVID-19 surge

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 12 2021 07:03 PM | Updated as of Apr 12 2021 07:48 PM

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and United States Military attend the opening of the 36th Balikatan Exercise (BK36-21) wearing masks and maintaining social distancing amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on Monday. Amid the rising tensions in the South China Sea, this year's Balikatan was scaled down to only 1,700 total number in personnel, partly because of the pandemic. Armed Forces of the Philippines handout via Reuters

MANILA — Soldiers from the United States and the Philippines began Monday their annual joint military exercises after the maneuvers were cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The "toned down" Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises kicked off Monday at the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) headquarters in Quezon City, with officials insisting that activities will be conducted "with utmost consideration and compliance to guidelines" set by the Philippine inter-agency task force against COVID1-9.
 
"Though this year’s exercises are toned down because of the prevailing health crisis, which has affected not only the Philippines, but similarly the entire world – these circumstances, will however, not diminish nor hamper the real intent of the Balikatan Exercises – that is to foster a stronger and more robust military relationship, and interoperability between our two Armed Forces," said AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana. 

Among the adjustments made, the AFP said, is a decrease in participants from both armed forces, with 736 AFP personnel participating and the US Armed Forces with approximately 225.

"Against this backdrop and these challenges notwithstanding, the decrease is only in terms of number and never in the participating nations’ passion and desire to meet the steep objectives set forth in every exercise,” said Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, the commander of the AFP Education Training and Doctrine Command and this year’s Exercise Director.

US military officials said they are "proud to participate" in the Balikatan exercises, which were launched in 1991.

"We thank the Armed Forces of the Philippines for hosting US troops in ways that maintain the health and safety of both our militaries," said US Embassy Chargé d'Affaires John Law.

This year's Balikatan will include a bilateral staff exercise, close air support training, subject matter exchanges, maritime security training, and humanitarian and civic assistance activities. These events will be conducted in areas within the Northern Luzon Command and Southern Luzon Command. 

The Philippines is currently battling a fresh surge in COVID-19 infections, with daily cases reaching record highs. 

The 36th Balikatan exercises will conclude on April 23. 

The drills coincide with the Philippines protesting against the presence of the Chinese maritime militia boats inside its 200-mile exclusive economic zone at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef).

Chinese diplomats, however, claimed the boats were just sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard. They also claim the reef is part of Chinese territory.

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