MANILA, April 11 (Xinhua) -- More than 17,000 Philippine and U.S. troops on Tuesday kicked off the most extensive joint military activities in decades in the Philippines amid criticisms that it escalates tension in the region rather than peace and stability.
According to the Philippine military, the 18-day yearly exercise dubbed Balikatan involves 5,400 Philippine and 12,200 U.S. troops, making it the largest iteration of the Philippines-U.S. joint drills conducted in decades. About 100 members of the Australian armed forces join in the exercises, while a dozen countries, including Japan and Britain, are participating as observers.
Balikatan 2023 will be held in several areas including northern Luzon island, Palawan province, Batanes islands, and Zambales province from April 11 to 28.
The drills will focus on maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire training, cyber defense, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief preparedness. The Philippines and the United States will deploy complex weapons systems, including a Patriot missile battery and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).
Hundreds of protesters, including League of Filipino Students members, held a "lightning rally" around 5 a.m. local time Tuesday, a few hours before the official start of the Balikatan exercise in the Philippines. The students urged the Philippine government to trash the military agreements with the United States.
Protesters carried placards and banners denouncing the drills, urging Filipinos to oppose the joint exercises. Some activists hurled "paint bombs," defacing the seal of the U.S. Embassy in Manila to denounce the joint military training.
Another protest was held at the gate of a military camp while the opening ceremony was underway inside the main headquarters.
Anna Malindog-Uy, vice president of the Manila-based think tank Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute, warned that the staging of Balikatan will create instability and volatility in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region and the wider Asia-Pacific region, adding that the Filipinos will be caught in the crossfire and suffer the most.
Roland Simbulan, vice chair of the Center for People's Empowerment in Governance of the Philippines, urged the Philippines to focus more on economic relations with all countries rather than spending on arms sales, which implies Balikatan and other joint military activities between the Philippines and the United States.
Balikatan, a Tagalog phrase for "shoulder-to-shoulder," is the most comprehensive among several regular Philippines-U.S. joint military exercises.
The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) gives U.S. troops a legal basis for being in the Southeast Asian country for bilateral military exercises and governs the conduct of U.S. armed force personnel.