US-Philippines back in military lockstep vis-a-vis China

By Richard Javad Heydarian

Amid revitalized bilateral relations, the Philippines and the US kicked off their first major wargames under new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr in style.

The Kamandag, or Cooperation of the Warriors of the Sea, wargames started earlier this month, featuring 2,550 US Marines personnel with 630 Filipino counterparts, including 500 from the Philippine Marines and 100 from the Philippine Navy and Air Force, and engaging in a variety of military drills until October 14.

For the first time, personnel from the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and Republic of Korea Armed Forces (ROKAF) also participated in the massive drills, underscoring the Philippines’ growing importance in the US Pentagon’s “integrated deterrence” strategy against China in the Indo-Pacific.

Although participating as observers, the JSDF and ROKAF are expected to join in disaster response drills and other relevant activities aimed at enhancing interoperability among the four allied nations. The annual Philippine-US Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) exercises also regularly feature Japanese and Australian armed forces as observer nations.

In many ways, the Philippines is becoming a critical node in various quadrilateral and multilateral efforts to enhance maritime security interoperability between the US and its key regional allies, namely Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Philippine Navy chief Rear Admiral Caesar Bernard Valencia underscored how the four-nation exercises are being held “in a volatile security environment.” The location and types of drills reveal shared concerns over China’s rising assertiveness in the South China Sea and nearby Taiwan Strait.

The drills are being held in three primary locations, namely in Palawan to the west, which is located next to disputed islands in the South China Sea, in Zambales near the disputed Scarborough Shoal and in the northernmost islands of  Batanes, which are just over 100 miles from Taiwan’s southern shores.

Crucially, the Kamandag exercises include, among others, amphibious and coastal defense operations as well as aircraft and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) drills.

Throughout the presidential campaign earlier this year, Marcos Jr largely stood by outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte’s China-friendly foreign policy, emphasizing how peaceful dialogue is “really our only option.” After winning the presidency, he maintained a generally cordial posture towards Beijing, which he described as the Philippines’ “strongest partner” for post-pandemic economic recovery.

Marcos Jr also warmly hosted Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, with both sides vowing to pursue a “new golden era” of bilateral relations.

Unlike his predecessor, however, Marcos Jr adopted a far more assertive stance on the South China Sea disputes, going as far as categorically rejecting Beijing’s claims in Philippine waters. He also vowed to uphold the 2016 arbitral tribunal award at the Hague, which nullified much of China’s expansive claims across the South China Sea in favor of the Philippines.

The recalibration of once-cozy ties with Beijing has gone hand in hand with the revitalization of frayed ties with America. In his first 100 days, Marcos Jr met multiple top-level American officials, hosting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Manila in August and, weeks after, meeting US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

In a radical departure from Duterte’s anti-Western tirades, Marcos Jr has praised America’s stabilizing role in the Indo-Pacific, vowing to make the Philippine-US alliance “stronger in the coming years.” Shortly after his meeting with Biden, Philippine defense chief Jose Faustino Jr. personally met with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Honolulu, Hawaii. There, the two sides agreed to rapidly expand bilateral security cooperation to address shared strategic interests and concerns in the Indo-Pacific.

As such, the Pentagon and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have agreed to expand their annual joint exercises to 500 next year, a 60% increase from current numbers. The US will also be doubling its participation in the Balikatan exercises, which featured as many as 9,000 troops – 5,100 US military personnel and 3,800 Filipino counterpart – earlier this year.

This year’s Balikatan, the largest in history, featured a full range of joint military drills focusing on “maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief.”

Taking place shortly before Marcos Jr assumed office, the US expressed its commitment to “strengthen[ing] international partnerships and the participating militaries’ abilities to rapidly respond to crises throughout the Indo-Pacific region.”

The Philippine-US alliance has become ever more important in light of rising concerns over potential Chinese kinetic actions against neighboring Taiwan. In response, Manila has indicated its openness to grant the Pentagon access to key bases in the event of any conflict. The Philippine Navy has detachments in the islands of Mavulis and Fuga, which are just over 100 nautical miles away from Taiwan’s southern shores.

The ongoing 12-day Kamandag exercises, which now also feature Japanese and Korean forces, are geared towards preparing the four allies for any potential contingencies in the near future. On October 7, the Philippines and US held amphibious attack drills in a naval base in the province of Zambales, which opens on the South China Sea and hosts the Subic military base, the site of the largest overseas US bases in the Cold War era.

One drill, which saw the participation of Japanese forces, even simulated the potential response to an adversary chemical weapons attack.

While the Kamandag drills are headlining their humanitarian assistance and disaster relief elements, coastal defense and amphibious operations are clearly a key focus, with an eye on China’s expanding footprint in the nearby South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

Brigadier General Raul Jesus Caldez, the Philippines’ Kamandag exercise director, characterized the first wargames under Marcos Jr as “a manifestation of our strong resolve to embark on bilateral training activities despite all the challenges and for that I am thanking everyone for the support,” though downplaying the timeliness of the drills amid rising Sino-American tensions over Taiwan.

Philippine Navy chief Valencia, however, emphasized growing maritime security cooperation and interoperability among US allies in the region in ideological terms.

“I hope that we will continue to stand together as allies and partners, armed with the commitment to uphold the values and the principles of freedom, democracy and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific,” the Philippine naval chief told reporters.

“I look forward to these opportunities that we have in this training exercise as we continue to collaborate in addressing collective security concerns in the region and worldwide,” he continued.

His US counterpart, Rear Admiral Derek Trinque, was even blunter, emphasizing how the drills help the allies “to be more prepared to address real-world challenges” and welcomed more quadrilateral exercises in the future and “opportunities to work multilaterally.”

“While it’s always a privilege for us to work bilaterally with the Philippines, with Japan, with the Republic of Korea, when we can bring our allies and partners together, if we can be part of that then we are pleased to do so,” he said.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian