(AA) – The Philippines and United States kick off Monday another joint military exercise with both participating forces to focus on territorial defense, an official said Sunday.
Lt. Col. Marlowe Patria, Philippine public information officer for the 31st edition of the “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercise, told the state-run Philippines News Agency (PNA) that the 10-day war games will be different from previous.
“This is to ensure that the country’s military forces has the capability to defend itself, aside from helping in disaster response and community development,” Patria said.
He stressed that the decision to include territorial defense is not aimed at any particular nation, adding that the overall goal is to ensure that the Philippines military will able to enhance its capability to protect the country from any threat.
The annual exercise takes place as China continues to construct facilities in disputed parts of the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea.
It has been reported that the exercises will start at a naval base in Zambales, 220 km away from the Scarborough Shoal – the disputed waters. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have competing claims to parts of the sea, which is believed to sit atop vast deposits of fossil fuels.
Aside from boosting territorial, disaster, and community capabilities, the annual exercise also seeks to improve the interoperability and teamwork of participating nations.
Patria attributes the high number of participants, placed at over to 11,740 military personnel, to the fact that the exercises are all scenario driven especially on disaster response as they involve the establishment of evacuation centers and transport of affected families there.
“Balikatan” Exercises started in 1951 based on the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries.
This year, however, is the first time U.S. troops have been banned by the U.S. Pacific Command from going to bars and nightclubs.
The ban comes as U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton is on trial for allegedly murdering a transgender Filipina he met in a bar.
U.S. forces spokesman Captain Alex Lim has said there will be strict controls on the free time of U.S. troops, including a 10 p.m. curfew.
Owners and managers of nightclubs and bars and other businesses near areas where U.S. ships will be based have claimed that such restrictions on shore leave will adversely affect their businesses.
“No business!” protested Jim Robertson, owner of Scuba Shack bar and restaurant at the waterfront road of Subic Freeport when asked by Rappler about the impact of the restriction.
“We’re losing some P50,000 ($1,121.61) a night since this ban was imposed,” said Robertson, who added that his place had been a favorite hangout of U.S. troops because of its proximity to the pier where their ships are docked.
HD1 Bar and Restaurant manager Erlieboy told Rappler that the situation wasn’t very encouraging as they have to wait for the Pemberton case to be resolved before the U.S. authorities can make a decision on allowing servicemen to return.
“We’re making P50,000 ($$1,121.61) to P60,000 ($1,346.76) a night from these U.S. servicemen as they love to drink beers and mixed drinks and are really generous spenders but that sudden imposition of the liberty ban really hit us hard.”