The largest ever U.S.-Filipino military exercise began April 11 in the South China Sea, despite massive international protests. The Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) 2023 has the participation of over 17,700 troops from the United States, the Philippines, and Australia and is set to last until April 28.
The annual military exercises have expanded tremendously, nearly doubling in size since the last series of drills, as the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has sought to clear the way for an increased U.S. military presence in the country. The drills come at a time when tensions between China and the U.S., along with its allies in East Asia, are at their highest.
Meanwhile, Filipinos and peace advocates in the U.S. and the Philippines greeted the joint exercises on April 11 with protests. In Quezon City, progressive groups like Bayan, GABRIELA, and League of Filipino Students, among a dozen others rallied hundreds outside Camp Aguinaldo, the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, just hours before the exercises began.
Diaspora Filipinos and anti-war organizations in the U.S. also organized demonstrations against the exercises under the slogan of “Hands Off Philippines.” In New York City and San Francisco, activists gathered in protest and demanded the complete withdrawal of the U.S. military from the Philippines.
Speaking to Democracy Now!, Renato Reyes, Jr., the general secretary of Bayan, stated that Filipinos do not want tensions in the region to increase. “It is not in our interest to see the conflict escalate,” said Reyes. “We want peace in the region. We want respect for our sovereignty, for our sovereign rights. We don’t want incursions from China, but we don’t want to be used as a staging ground for U.S. military intervention and hegemony in the region.”