No adjustments for South China Sea as Philippines, US kick off joint drills


MANILA, Philippines — Despite previous pronouncements of United States Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on the South China Sea, the annual joint military exercises between Filipino and American troops will not reflect the maritime dispute.

In his visit to Manila last month, the top American diplomat assured the Philippines that the US is ready to assist its ally in case of an armed confrontation in the disputed waterway.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines, however, stressed that the Balikatan exercises are not directed at any country.

“It’s not directed to any threat or existing security concern. This is a generic exercise aimed at enhancing interoperability between Philippines and US forces,” exercise director Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay said in a press briefing.

Adding that the exercises would be scenario-based, Gapay further explained that this year’s Balikatan would focus on global terrorism, territorial defense and disaster response.

Brig. Gen. Chris McPhillips, US exercise director, directly answered “no” when asked if there were adjustments made for the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea.

“While each year we change Balikatan a little bit, like the general said, to introduce new capabilities and training, Balikatan is not aimed at any other nation in the region,” McPhillips said.

China has been encroaching on Philippine waters, ignoring the July 2016 ruling of United Nations-backed tribunal that invalidated its nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea.

Pompeo earlier raised alarms over Beijing’s activities in the region that threaten Philippine sovereignty, security and economic livelihood.

“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty,” Pompeo said in Manila on March 1.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has been calling for a review of the provisions on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US, asking for clarification if the treaty covers the South China Sea.

Despite Pompeo’s declaration a month ago, there have been no requests from either Manila or Washington to review the treaty, according to the US side.

“There is no request from either side to renegotiate the treaty. That said, we have frequent discussions and talks in appropriate channels with appropriate mechanisms on a regular basis about the treaty,” US Department of State Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Partick Murphy said a few weeks ago.