By Martin Sadongdong
Nearly 11,000 Filipino and American soldiers will train hand-in-hand in May in the country in what could be the last iteration of the Balikatan exercises with the impending termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said the annual military drills will push through as scheduled since it is within the 180-day negotiation period of the VFA abrogation.
The termination of the military pact will take effect on August 11.
“Walang mababawas sa original na nakaplano (Nothing will change in the original plan) in terms of the number of attendees until and unless sa last minute ay may magsasabi na may mababago (in the last minute, a party decides to change some things),” he said during the Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum on Wednesday.
This year’s Balikatan exercises will gather more than 4,300 Filipino and 6,500 American troops. Around 50 Australian forces are also expected to participate.
Arevalo said that as early as April, there will be advanced contingents that will arrive from the United States and Australia to prepare the equipment, supplies, and medical requirements of the participating foreign troops.
While the military spokesman offered little explanation as to the impact of the VFA termination to the relations of the Philippines and US, he said that it is beneficial to both countries as it enables the conduct of large-scale exercises to improve the sharing of expertise and cooperation among the troops.
He said it will be hard for the Philippines and US to conduct other Balikatan-like drills when the two countries fail to reach a negotiation and the military pact officially ends.
“The VFA gives special privileges to the US security forces to train in a scale as big as the Balikatan kung saan napakaraming pinapadalang pwersa, may kagamitan, armas na pinapasok sa ating bansa na hindi na nila kakailanganin pa ng visa (where a big number of troops, equipment and firearms are being sent to our country without the need for visa). In terms of equipment, hindi na magbabayad ng (there’s no need for) customs duty,” Arevalo explained.
“With the abrogation of VFA, ito ang (these are the) privileges na mawawala sa kanila (that they will lose). Hindi na natin maipagpapatuloy ‘yung ganitong kalaking scale na military exercises kung wala na ang VFA (We will no longer be able to continue military exercises [with the US] as big as this if there is no VFA),” he added.
Even after the termination of the VFA, Arevalo said Balikatan may still continue if the US government requires their troops to present visa upon arrival and pay the customary duties.
“It can still proceed [even without VFA]. Theoretically that is correct,” he said, noting that the number of participants will surely be affected.
But security experts doubt that the US government will agree to such arrangements.
Arevalo said it will be a good opportunity for the military to develop its own capabilities without the need for foreign assistance.
On February 11, Malacanang announced that the government has sent the notice of termination of the VFA to the US on the orders of President Duterte.
READ MORE: Duterte orders termination of VFA
Duterte decided to scrap the two-decade-old military pact after the US revoked the travel visa of staunch political ally, Senator Ronald dela Rosa, accordingly after Washington takes its campaign against human rights violators a notch higher.
Dela Rosa said the cancellation of his visa might have been because of his role as Duterte’s national police chief in 2016 when the bloody war on drugs was launched.
Even with the VFA termination, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Felimon Santos Jr. had said that they would support the political decision of the President.
READ MORE: PH can survive without VFA