2024 Balikatan joint US-Philippine drills to be bigger than ever

BenarNews staff
2024 Balikatan joint US-Philippine drills to be bigger than ever A U.S. Marines OV-22 Osprey flies past a bird during Balikatan, a joint military exercise between U.S. and Philippine forces, at a Naval station in Zambales province, northern Philippines, April 26, 2023.
Aaron Favila/AP

This year’s Balikatan joint military exercises with the United States will be bigger than ever before and could include drills staged in areas of the far-northern Philippines close to Taiwan, officials here said Tuesday.

The 2023 edition of Balikatan – Tagalog for “shoulder-to-shoulder” – drew 17,600 troops from the Philippines, the United States, and Australia. The number of participants last year set a record for the annual joint drills, which began in the 1990s.  

The 2024 exercises may include Mavulis, an uninhabited island and the northernmost territory in the Philippines, as one of the venues. The island is part of the Batanes archipelago, where drills could also be staged this coming April, Philippine military officials said. The Batanes chain lies only within 150 km (93 miles) of southeast Taiwan’s Orchid Island.

This past weekend, military officials went to Mavulis and other islands in Batanes province to inspect the prospective army sites there.

“We are still at the planning stages at this point,” Col. Fransel Margareth Padilla, the newly installed spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), told BenarNews. 

“It’s going to happen in April and it’s going to be … bigger than last time and [involve] more key locations.” 

She would not elaborate, but local officials in Batanes said they had been consulted about the plan.

Batanes is a natural demarcation line between the Philippines and Taiwan, and is known more for tourism than as a strategic military location. Last year, part of the exercises were also held there, but because the location is remote, it did not receive too much press coverage.

In recent years, tensions have risen between rival superpowers the United States and China over Taiwan. 

China’s communist government, which has never ruled the democratic island, views Taiwan as part of its territory.


The 39th edition of the annual exercise will feature amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations, counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, among other drills.

“We are doing things a little differently. Aside from kinetic activities and littoral, airspace and land, we will also be doing exercises in the nonphysical domain such as cyberspace and information warfare,” Padilla told reporters in a separate media forum.

Last year, the Balikatan drills got underway after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. sought to allay public fears that a beefed-up American military presence in the Philippines would unnecessarily draw the country into a conflict in case war broke out between China and the U.S. over Taiwan.

On Tuesday, the vice governor of Batanes, Ignacio Villa, told BenarNews that the local government had been consulted. 

“We had Balikatan in our province last year and there was no objection,” he said by phone from the island province’s capital, Basco.

Mavulis, meanwhile, is suitable for training too because it is “not populated and only military personnel are staying there,” he said.

Troubled waters

China so far has not made any comments about the planned exercises. Last year, nearly 18,000 troops – 12,000 Americans, 5,000 Filipinos and about 100 Australians participated in Balikatan. 

Tensions have also been simmering between China and the Philippines, a longtime U.S. defense ally in Southeast Asia, over the contested South China Sea. 

Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, the Philippine Navy spokesman on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), said Tuesday that a multitude of Chinese navy ships, coast guard ships, and Chinese militia vessels had been spotted in disputed waters.

“At any one time, somewhere from 15 to 25 [Chinese] warships,” Trinidad told a press briefing, referring to the number of Chinese warships in the area. He was citing information said based on the latest intelligence data. 

“We have [seen] more maritime militia. As of the last count, I would say around 200. And for the Chinese Coast Guard I think another 10 to 15,” said Trinidad, who is also the deputy commander of the Philippine Fleet – a major command under the Philippine Navy.

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales contributed reporting from Davao City, southern Philippines.


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