Locals air concerns on biggest Balikatan yet

This Week in Media (April 10 to 15, 2023)

WITH 17,600 troops participating, this year’s Balikatan military exercises between the United States and the Philippines is the biggest yet, surpassing the 8,900 who participated last year.  It includes a small Australian contingent and observers from Japan, the United Kingdom and Australia.  According to reports, the joint training activities will be held from April 11 to 28. Media were quick to pick up along with official statements, local voices sounding complaints about hosting these troops in their area. 

Media coverage gave prominence to the events, reported on front pages of Manila-based broadsheets and leading the lineup of TV newscasts.

News accounts on print, TV and online correctly noted that the US-PH war games closely followed China’s three-day Taiwan military exercise. News accounts reported statements recently made by China’s Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian and Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin, claiming the destabilizing impact of the enlarged Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) on the region. These reports publicized Beijing’s message with little reference to the record of flashpoints of tension and confrontation caused by the free roaming Chinese militia vessels in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

With exceptions, reports on the Balikatan and EDCA have lacked coherence and context to help the public understand the rising global tension in which the country, by virtue of its history and geography, plays a role. Filipino journalists quite often simply play back statements made by officials speaking for their governments.

To report on the week’s activities, media quoted statements from US and Philippine officials who stressed the significance of these efforts to enhance the defense capacity of the Philippines, and to demonstrate US commitment to support modernization not only of Philippine defense but also the country’s humanitarian and disaster response. 

Previous Balikatan exercises were held mostly in land-based sites. A Rappler report cited Michael Logico, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Balikatan spokesperson, who said the exercises this year would focus on maritime defense and would include live fire exercises at sea. A Philstar.com article provided the list of equipment to be used in the joint exercises, but did not detail how the equipment added to the training experience. 

View from the ground

Locals’ response to Balikatan exercises, however, have been less enthusiastic. Philippine Daily Inquirer reported as banner story on April 11 concerns expressed by fisherfolk in Zambales, where five coastal towns were declared “no-sail zones” during the exercises. In an earlier report, Inquirer noted that live-fire exercises were originally set in Ilocos Norte. Gervy Gumarit, provincial information office of Ilocos Norte, told Inquirer that the information they received from AFP did not explain the transfer of venue.

The reaction of the fisherfolk prompted Logico to say that the disruption of livelihood would be “minimal,” specifying that certain operations that could affect fishing activities would last only two days. AFP Spokesperson Medel Aguilar told ANC on April 12 that the military is coordinating with the Zambales government so appropriate assistance for the local fishers affected by Balikatan.

The obvious lack of internal communication on the part of Philippine officials has clouded public understanding of the benefits as well as challenges of the Balikatan. 

Manila Bulletin reported on April 12 an apparent word war between Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba and Defense OIC Carlito Galvez, Jr. The governor insisted that he had never consented to the use of the two military bases in his province for EDCA, or that President Marcos and Galvez had talked to him about it.

For his part, Galvez maintained it was the President who makes the final decision based on DND’s “strategic assessment” of sites to be considered. He asserted that the decision belongs to the President. 

Manny Mogato in his PressOne.ph column observed that the military, Galvez in particular, must be “forthright” about the objective of the exercises. A long-time defense correspondent, Mogato pointed out that while humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are key aspects of US presence, “Washington is preparing for any contingency in the Taiwan Straits as Beijing steps up its live military drills around the self-ruled island, which it considers a renegade province.” 

Philippine media cannot treat EDCA and Balikatan without reference to the global context and the policy that best serves national interests. 

Mogato added that while the US troops can aid in infrastructure development and in driving economic activity, their presence could also bear “social costs,” among them more harassment from Chinese vessels and retaliation in trade relations through imposing tariff measures on Philippine exports.

Obviously, the media could draw out these larger issues by asking the right questions. It has not helped that the government seems unprepared to acknowledge that President Marcos is pursuing a policy that directly counters Duterte’s pivot to China and his submission to China’s agenda. Marcos has said little about how his policy serves national interest as well as addresses geopolitical issues. 

Journalists then should do the work themselves and gain the deep background necessary so they can do more than just quote official statements. News coverage must examine closely EDCA issues beyond the separate lenses of either defense or diplomacy. Journalists must press for a measure of coherence so reports can help establish consensus on the best way to serve the country’s interests in these troubled times.