By Zachary Abuza
On April 20, the United States and the Philippines commenced the 31st annual Balikatan military exercises. They are significant for three reasons. The first is their size. With some 6,500 U.S. personnel and 5,000 Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) personnel, the exercises are almost twice as large as the 2014 iteration that had only 2,500 U.S. and 3,000 Philippine personnel. It is the largest exercise in 15 years and includes numerous multilateral observers.
The second reason is that some of the exercises are taking place off of Palawan Island, which legally oversees the Kalayaan Island Group of roughly 50 atolls and features that comprise the Philippine claim to the Spratly Islands. China is currently engaged in massive land reclamation efforts on several of those features, including Johnson South Reef, Gaven Reef, Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Cuarteron Reef. The Balikatan exercises are held under AFP Western Command, which also has operational authority over the South China Sea. The activities have a more maritime focus than in the past, including exercises aimed at retaking captured islands. The maritime orientation of this year’s exercises is in large part due to the shock in both Manila and Washington at the speed and scope of reclamation efforts which have increased the land area of Chinese occupied features from 5 acres to 900 acres.
The third significant feature is that the exercises are quietly morphing from a bilateral to a multilateral exercise. This year’s Balikatan includes 70 Australian Defence Force personnel. In addition, there are also observers from Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam—countries that have been concerned by Chinese assertiveness in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea, and China’s unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the latter in 2013.
Japan and Korea are supporting the development of the Philippines’ naval and coast guard capabilities. South Korean in 2014 agreed to donate a corvette to the Philippines, hoping to win a contract for two new frigates. It recently sold the Philippines 12 FA-50 fighter jets. Japan, with whom the Philippines has a strategic partnership, announced plans to provide the Philippines 10 patrol vessels. Meanwhile Vietnam and the Philippines are launching a strategic partnership and will hold their first bilateral naval exercises. Vietnam filed a statement in support of Manila with the tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration hearing the case the Philippines brought against China in March 2014.
While neither the U.S. nor the Philippine governments have stated that the Balikatan exercises will become permanently multilateral, it is in the strategic interests of both for that to happen. The annual Cobra Gold exercises between the United States and Thailand that began as a bilateral exercise in 1982 transformed by 2000 into the largest multilateral exercise in the region and could serve as a template.
The desire to make that happen is also driven by the political uncertainties in Thailand following the May 2014 coup d’etat, the second in eight years. Although the 2015 Cobra Gold was not canceled, it was scaled back, and the most important justification for keeping it going was that it has become such an important multilateral exercise. Were it still simply a bilateral exercise, there would be little political support for holding it. And yet the United States has indefinitely postponed the April 2015 planning meeting for the 2016 exercises, despite the naming of a new U.S. ambassador after a six month gap. There is ample concern that the retrograde draft constitution recently released will lead to far more political instability necessitating continued military interference in Thai politics.
The key challenge to multilateralizing the Balikatan exercises is the access issues that the Philippine constitution presents to visiting forces. Only the United States and Australia have agreements with Manila that permit exercising in this way, and domestic political support in the Philippines for an expansion in participants in the Balikatan is likely highly variable.
The Balikatan exercises also take place in the shadow of the Philippine Supreme Court anticipated ruling on the constitutionality of the U.S.-Philippine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was signed just over a year ago and would allow the United States to preposition equipment, construct facilities on Philippine bases, and increase rotations of U.S. forces, in particular for maritime surveillance. The Philippines, unsurprisingly, has requested additional military assistance from the United States. The United States has provided over $300 million since 2001, including $40 million in 2015.