MANILA — More than 2,000 U.S. and Philippine marines finished three weeks of joint amphibious exercises in the northern Philippines Friday, capping the year’s joint training agenda, which officials of both countries hope will be expanded in the near future. But the U.S. government shutdown has cast a shadow as the two governments talk about more U.S. troop visits to the Philippines.
The bilateral exercises closed on a day that President Barack Obama was supposed to go the Philippines. But he canceled his visit because of the U.S. government shutdown. Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to go in his stead, but Kerry’s trip was canceled Thursday afternoon because Manila was about to be battered by a typhoon.
Despite the nixed trips, Visiting Forces Commission Executive Director Edilberto Adan said the Philippines remains reassured by its partnership with the United States.
“We have our common values. We want a democracy that is alive. Both our nations respect the rule of law. We want freedom of navigation of our seas. So this alliance is emphasized through these exercises that these two nations remain committed to the purpose, to the objectives, of the Mutual Defense Treaty,” Adan stated.
Negotiators from the Philippines and the U.S. are currently combing through the Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement to work out how the Philippines will accommodate more frequent U.S. troop visits.
The U.S. wants easy access to areas where it could dock ships, land planes and have equipment positioned and ready to use. Philippine negotiators say the plan fits well with their weak and aging military’s $1.8 billion upgrade program, and add that having more training opportunities with a visible American presence would help form a “minimum credible defense posture.” The Philippines is in a territorial dispute with China over rocks and outcroppings in the South China Sea, which China claims almost entirely.
While the details of the agreement were being scrutinized by the parties in several rounds of talks in Washington and Manila, marines from both countries carried out exercises in waters near disputed territory.
On a windy Friday in Ternate, Cavite - about 220 kilometers southeast of the contested Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea - a massive CH-53 helicopter whirred above the choppy water of a small beach. A few dozen marines in full gear jumped out of its belly aiming for rubber boats below.
The troops were practicing entering locations through water for military raids and humanitarian purposes.
This was not the first time Philippine marines practiced the maneuver. But Philippine Marines spokesman Vince Salmingo said it was an important activity to share with U.S. counterparts.
“The new thing here is as much as possible we try to… avail of a new unit to do this. Our other guys were able to undergo the same training before," Salmingo explained. "But for this particular exercise… it is going to be a new unit but the same training.”
The pending agreement makes clear that there will be no U.S. bases in the Philippines, which closed down century-old American installations in 1992 under domestic pressure. The Philippine negotiators say they do not expect any doubling of the thousands of troops that come every year for joint activities.
The Mutual Defense Board, comprised of both countries’ officials, is meeting next week to plan the coming year’s joint exercises. Undersecretary Adan said they hope to have additional training scheduled under the anticipated agreement.