MANILA -- The Philippines and the U.S. on Monday kick off two weeks of military drills in a showcase of their defense alliance amid a fresh feud between Manila and Beijing over the disputed South China Sea.
The resumption of the annual exercises comes as officials from both countries recently discussed tensions in the disputed waters. They also expressed hopes on the future of their alliance, which has been thrown into uncertainty by President Rodrigo Duterte's efforts to move closer to China.
This year's Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises, which were canceled last year due to the pandemic, will involve 960 U.S. and Philippine troops, a scaled-down version of previous drills to comply with health protocols.
"Though this year's exercises are toned down because of the prevailing health crisis...the circumstances, will however, not diminish nor hamper the real intent of 'Balikatan' exercises, which is to foster a stronger and more robust military relationship and interoperability between our two armed forces," Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Cirilito Sobejena said during the opening ceremonies in Camp Aguinaldo in Metropolitan Manila.
The joint war games, which will include maritime security training, come as the presence of dozens of Chinese vessels in the disputed Whitsun Reef rattled the Philippine military in recent weeks and triggered an open verbal spat between Philippines and Chinese officials.
The U.S. has backed the Philippines in the feud, saying that an armed attack on a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea would prompt a response from Washington under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
The Philippines' Department of National Defense welcomed Washington's guarantee and said it was keeping "all options open," including leveraging its U.S. alliance, as Beijing rejected demands from Manila to withdraw the "maritime militia" vessels. Manila says Whitsun Reef is part of its maritime zone, while China insists the boats are fishing vessels operating in traditional fishing grounds.
In a call with Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin "proposed several measures to deepen defense cooperation between the United States and the Philippines, including by enhancing situational awareness of threats in the South China Sea," according to a readout from the Pentagon, which did not elaborate.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke with his Philippine counterpart, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., about the Chinese ships in the disputed waters.
"Both Secretaries expressed confidence and optimism in the future trajectory of the Philippines-United States bilateral cooperation as this year marks the 75th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between the two countries," read a statement from Manila.
But behind the remarks of confidence lie uncertainties. Duterte last year moved to terminate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, which is crucial to the Mutual Defense Treaty and the conduct of drills like Balikatan, after the U.S. canceled the visa of a political ally. In November, Duterte suspended the termination for a second time by another six months to renegotiate the deal.
The U.S.-Philippine alliance cannot function without a mutually workable Visiting Forces Agreement, said Carl Thayer, a regional security analyst and professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales.
"This situation is not ideal, as it undermines the deterrent effect of the Mutual Defense Treaty on China. The current crisis at Whitsun Reef should add pressure on both sides to resolve this impasse as quickly as possible," Thayer said.
Duterte has forged closer economic ties with China and has avoided criticizing Beijing over the flotilla of ships in Whitsun Reef. Instead, he said the issue "will not be an obstacle" to a "positive trajectory" of bilateral ties, including cooperation on pandemic, such as vaccines, and post-pandemic responses. China has donated a million doses of COVID vaccines to the Philippines.
In February, Duterte said the U.S. will "have to pay" if it wants to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement amid the Philippines-U.S. Intersessional Strategic Dialogue that month, wherein the deal was discussed.
On Sunday, the statement from Manila's defense department said Austin "reiterated the importance of the VFA and hopes that it would be renewed."
Lorenzana, for his part, "committed to discuss the matter with the President as the final approval lies with him" and asked Austin to help fast-track the delivery of Moderna vaccines, according to a statement from Manila.
Thayer said China's actions in the disputed waters "are a catalyst for the two sides to reset their defense relations and begin discussions on further defense cooperation."
"Duterte's secretaries of foreign affairs and defense are acutely aware of the threat to national sovereignty that China's recent actions pose to the Philippines," Thayer said. "They will have to find way to assuage Duterte's ego and reach a face-saving agreement with the United States."