Philippine and US troops started a two-week joint military exercise on April 12 to signal the resumption of the suspended Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

This time it would be a scaled-down affair with just 225 Americans and 736 participants instead of thousands while drills would mostly be virtual and manual trainings at Camp Aguinaldo.

Called the 36th Balikatan Exercise, which is at the heart of VFA, this previously included military drills at the West Philippine Sea, where tension is currently high over what the US claimed as “increasing aggressiveness of China” and may have prompted the Philippines to lift the VFA suspension.

 “The Balikatan Exercise, since its launching in 1991, has been a treasure trove of learning opportunities for both Filipino and American soldiers and in recent years would also include our other allies here in the Indo-Pacific region, said AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, who declared the start of Balikatan at the Camp Aguinaldo headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Also present were US Embassy in the Philippines Chargé d’Affaires John Law; Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo of the AFP Education Training and Doctrine Command and this year’s Exercise Director; Col. Stephen Ma, Joint US Military Assistance Group chief and U.S. defense attaché; and Col. Aaron Brunk of the US III Marine Expeditionary Force, Officer in Charge for Exercise Support Group.

The United States is proud to participate in the Balikatan Exercise, and we thank the Armed Forces of the Philippines for hosting US troops in ways that maintain the health and safety of both our militaries,” said Charge d’Affaires Law. “Joint exercises like Balikatan demonstrate our shared commitment to peace and stability and the adaptability of US and Philippine forces. The United States will continue to seek ways, even during the pandemic, to strengthen our security cooperation.

Defense Undersec. Cesar Yano presided over the opening ceremony in the absence of Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana who just tested positive for Covid-19.

With this year’s 36th Balikatan Exercise, we reinvigorate the friendship, partnership and alliance between the Philippines and the United States; a bilateral relationship that is founded on our shared history of espousing peace, security, and cooperation among nations,said Yano.

This year’s Balikatan Exercise is being conducted with strict observance to health protocols due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the adjustments was the reduced number of participants from both militaries.

Against this backdrop and these challenges notwithstanding, the decrease is only in terms of number and never in the participating nations’ passion and desire to meet the steep objectives set forth in every exercise,AFP spokesman Arevalo said.

The Balikatan exercise pushed through after the two countries’ defense secretaries talked by phone to discuss the drills, the situation in the South China Sea, and recent regional security developments.

Sobejana said Balikatan drills would mostly train participants on responding to such threats as natural disasters and militant extremist attacks.

The Philippines has protested against the presence of the Chinese boats inside its 200-mile exclusive economic zone at Whitsun Reef in the strategic waterway, repeatedly asking China to move the vessels away.

Chinese diplomats, however, have said the fishing boats were just sheltering from rough seas and no militiamen were aboard.

In the phone call between Lorenzana and US Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin, Austin also reiterated the importance of the VFA between the two countries, according to a statement issued by Lorenzana’s office.

Lorenzana also sought the assistance of Austin in speeding up the delivery of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by U.S. pharmaceutical and biotechnology company Moderna that the Philippines ordered.

President Duterte last year unilaterally cancelled the two-decade-old VFA in an angry response after an ally was denied a US visa. The agreement provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines.