The Philippines and United States are expecting a return to “full-scale” Balikatan military exercises next year, with more observer-nations taking part, leaders of the two countries’ militaries said Thursday.
Armed Forces chief Gen. Jose Faustino and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (Indpacom) commander Adm. John Aquilino made the announcement as they met for this year’s Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board in Camp Aguinaldo.
“We will go full-scale Balikatan next year and will also involve other observer nations to participate,” Faustino said in an online press briefing.
Aquilino, at the same briefing, said the two military forces are also looking to increase the complexity and scope of the annual military exercises.
The Indopacom canceled the Balikatan last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A downscaled version of the war games, however, pushed through last April, amid continuing presence by a large number of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea.
Faustino said there are talks to include the United Kingdom as an observer for Balikatan 2022, in addition to Australia, Japan, and other countries already participating.
“We involve like-minded countries, allies when it comes to Balikatan exercises,” he said.
This comes in the wake of recent passes of a U.K. carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth through the Philippine Sea and the disputed South China Sea. The U.K. had also announced plans to station two offshore patrol vessels in Southeast Asia.
During their meeting, Faustino and Aquilino agreed on 300 military engagements for the Philippines and U.S., an increase from what was covered in 2020, according to the AFP.
Faustino said he and Aquilino also agreed on how to move forward with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), now that the Philippines has withdrawn its intent to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which it leans on.
“The withdrawal of the abrogation now allows us to push forward the delayed activities, like the exercise-related constructions… For the coming year, we will intensify our activities particularly relating to the EDCA,” he said.
The EDCA allows the U.S. to rotate troops into the Philippines for extended stays.
It also allows the U.S. to build and operate facilities on Philippine bases, for both American and Philippine forces, but not permanent military bases.