15.05.2024 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Balikatan Exercise in the South China Sea

Balikatan Exercise in the South China Sea

The annual US-Philippine military exercise Balikatan began on 22 April and will continue until 10 May. Originally planned as a relatively small and bilateral exercise, in recent years it has become the largest of those conducted by the United States in the Indo-Pacific region with the participation of one or more of its allies.

Australia has been a regular participant, while France has joined the current exercise for the first time. Observers from more than a dozen other Asian and European countries are usually present at these exercises. In particular, the current exercise included observers from India and Japan.

The total number of troops participating in Balikatan-2024 remained at the same level as last year, when it peaked at 17,000 for the entire duration of the exercise. This year, 11,000 Americans participated, mainly from the Marine Corps, but also from the Army, Navy and Air Force. The Philippines also sent 5,000 Marines. The remaining 1,000 were a small contingent from Australia and the crew of a French frigate “patrolling the southern part of the South China Sea”. The Balikatan-2024 exercise itself took place from the middle to the far north of both the Philippine land territory and the adjacent waters of the South China Sea.

The geography of this latest exercise was, in the consensus of commentators, one of the few major differences between the Balikatan-2024 exercise and all previous ones. While the current “geographic” feature itself, also included several components. First, the exercise’s maritime exercise space for the first time extended beyond the 12-mile zone of Philippine territorial waters. Secondly, they were substantially concentrated in the far north of the main Philippine island of Luzon, as well as in the strait of the same name.

The particular importance of the issue of control of the Luzon Strait also includes several significant points. Firstly, the strait serves as one of the main routes of communication between the waters of the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Second, it separates the island of Luzon from Taiwan, at about the same distance (about 250 kilometres) as the latter is from the coast of the PRC. Finally, several communication cables run beneath the surface of the Luzon Strait, while the increasing importance of keeping all kinds of submarine infrastructure in working order was recently demonstrated by a well-known incident in the Baltic Sea.

As for the “Mid-West” component of the geography of the discussed exercises, it has also acquired a landmark character, as it directly addressed the key problem of the escalating relations between the Philippines and the PRC due to overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. Generally speaking, the territory of the Philippines deep into the waters of the South China Sea should end with the island of Palawan, in the form of a thin “flagellum” stretching for 500 kilometres from north to south near the west coast of the same island of Luzon.

But, according to international law, the so-called “Zone of Exclusive Economic Interests” of the Philippines extends for 200 miles in the same western direction of the South China Sea. At the same time, a significant part of the Spratly archipelago, which China considers to be its territory referring to the so-called “nine-dotted line”, is located within this zone. However, the validity of the latter was rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague in the summer of 2016.

Thus, the fact that the geography of the Balikatan-2024 exercise extends west of the 12-mile zone of Palawan Island, again, brought it directly to one of the most pressing political issues of the entire Indo-Pacific region. The latter has not failed to make itself known once again just during the exercises under discussion in the form of a new incident involving Chinese and Philippine border ships.

The political landscape, which has undergone major changes over the past year, is another notable feature of Balikatan-2024. The current format of the exercise has been decisively affected, of course, by the further aggravation of relations between the two leading global powers, i.e., the United States and China.

However, the development of the situation in Southeast Asia is increasingly influenced by a factor of seemingly “local” importance, caused by the restoration of the traditionally pro-American positioning of the Philippines in the international arena. It became apparent in the second half of the rule of the previous Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte. However, he did not abandon his attempts to balance between the United States and China.

Today, Duterte is quite clearly criticising his successor Ferdinand Marcos Jr. who has sharply accelerated the aforementioned “recovery-US” course of the country. In this regard, the US-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit held in Washington ten days before the start of the Balikatan-2024 exercise was undoubtedly a milestone.

This was immediately followed by an equally remarkable US-Philippine bilateral meeting in the “3+3” format, i.e., with the participation of the foreign and defence ministers and national security advisers of both countries. On the eve of the event, the participants made brief statements to journalists on the situation in the Indo-Pacific region in general, but especially in Southeast Asia. In particular, Philippine Foreign Minister E. Manalo, in justifying his country’s current behaviour in the South China Sea, referred to various provisions of the international law of the sea, as well as to the mentioned PCA decision.

Note, however, that the latter is not recognised by the PRC. Beijing speaks of a bilateral “Gentlemen’s Agreement” concluded during Duterte’s presidency to prevent any conflicts in the disputed areas of the South China Sea. The current Philippine administration, on the other hand, claims that there is “no trace” of such an agreement, which was apparently concluded orally. All this has triggered yet another public Philippine-Chinese squabble.

Be that as it may, the above-mentioned abrupt change in the Philippines’ foreign policy course makes it much easier for the United States to justify its intervention in the processes developing in the South China Sea. We note a remarkable feature of Washington’s public positioning regarding territorial disputes both in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan issue. And also in the Japan-China disagreement over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu group of uninhabited islands, the situation in the area of which has once again sharply escalated just during the Balikatan-2024 exercises.

The aforementioned position of Washington boils down roughly to the following: “We do not favour anyone in your territorial disputes. But we are categorically against unilateral forceful methods of solving them and are ready to intervene if any such methods are indicated”.

In general, almost a Hollywood classic on the theme of ‘Exploring the Wild West’ with its invariable “saloon”. However, with the essential difference that the impartiality and neutrality of the current world sheriff are extremely doubtful.

And quite briefly about two other features of the next Balikatan exercises, directly arising from the above-mentioned ones.

Their scenario included not only repelling the landing of enemy amphibious assaults both on the disputed islands of the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea and on Taiwan. It was also practising its own amphibious operations on the above-mentioned territories. According to one commentary, this sends “a clear signal to China that it is prepared for any contingency in Asia, whether in the South China Sea or Taiwan”.

The composition of the weapons used during Balikatan 2024 was in line with the above-mentioned innovations in these exercises. In particular, the U.S. side for the first time used medium-range missiles, the need to deploy them in the Indo-Pacific region has long been expressed by various representatives of the U.S. military commanders. The last time this was done was in early April by General C. Flynn, commander of the US Army in the Indo-Pacific, during a visit to Japan.

The Philippines had originally planned to demonstrate BrahMos anti-ship missiles procured from India, but abandoned these plans at the last minute. Instead, South Korean-made missiles of a similar class were used.

In conclusion, it is regrettable to note that all the above-mentioned features of the Balikatan exercise are fully in line with the sharp aggravation of the political situation in the Indo-Pacific region in general and in South-East Asia in particular.


Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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