By Jeanne Michael Penaranda
MANILA/WASHINGTON – As the Philippines and the United States warm up again its ties under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and US President Joseph Biden Jr., an expanded security and defense engagements between the two countries are set this year and next year.
In their meeting at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, Marcos and Biden affirmed the strong alliance between their countries, with the US leader pointing out that the US policy of defense of the Philippines under their mutual defense treaty was “iron clad,” among others.
On the backdrop of the ongoing “Kamandag” military exercises joined by Philippine and American soldiers, and participated by Japan and South Korean self-defense and military forces in Palawan, Batanes and other areas, the Armed Forces announced that the Philippines and the United States will have 496 defense and security engagements in 2023.
In another development, two United States lawmakers met their local counterparts signifying the continuing effort from both countries to bolster long-standing bilateral relations.
Speaker Martin Romualdez said Senator Maria Imelda Imee Marcos and Reps. Rachel Arenas (3rd Dist., Pangasinan), Stella Quimbo (2nd Dist., Marikina), and Tsuyoshi Anthony Horibata (1st Dist., Camarines Sur) met with the bipartisan US congressional delegation composed of Rep. Seth Moulton (Massachusetts-Democrat) and Mike Waltz (Florida-Republican) at the Manila Golf and Country Club in Makati City.
Marcos and Arenas are the heads of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Senate and the House of Representatives, respectively.
The visit of the US lawmakers, who are both members of the US House Committee on Armed Services, occurred as 2,550 US Marines and their 630 Filipino counterparts kicked off the first stage of their two-week joint military exercises – the first under the administration of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.
The PH-US congressional delegations meeting took place on the heels of the Sept. 22 bilateral meeting between President Marcos Jr. and US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
During the bilateral meeting, Biden reaffirmed the commitment of the US to the defense of the Philippines. They also discussed the situation in the South China Sea and underscored their support for freedom of navigation and overflight and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
Marcos and Biden also discussed opportunities to expand bilateral cooperation on a wide range of issues, including energy security, climate action, and infrastructure, as well as the Ukraine-Russia war and its implications for energy prices and food security, among others.
“For CY 2023 – 496 (274 MDB(Mutual Defense Board) and 222 SEB (Security Engagement Board),” Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief-of-staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro said.
In a statement, Bacarro said this is bigger than this year’s 461 defense and security engagements, which can be broken down into 214 MDB and 247 SEB.
Bacarro said the 461 engagements posted for 2022 is also significantly higher than the 353 in 2021 which can be broken down into 197 MBD and 156 SEB.
The AFP chief attributed the relatively low number of US military engagements in 2021 due to the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bacarro said around 15,000 US military personnel will be involved in the various MDB and SEB drills in 2023 which includes the annual “Balikatan” exercises.
He said the American military personnel will not be coming en masse at one time.
“Kasi nung nag-Covid naghabol tayo wala tayong mga exercises for the past two years, kukunti, parang pinorward lang parang ganun (When we got stalled by Covid-19, there were no exercises for the past two years, so we were playing catch-up, so all these exercises were forwarded and will be conducted in 2023),” Bacarro said.
Bacarro and other ranking AFP officials attended the 2022 MDB-SEB Meeting at the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) Headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii last Sept. 27.
The MDB was established in 1958 while the SEB was established in 2006.
The two boards form the framework which directs and enables defense and security cooperation between the US and the Philippine forces.
The event was co-chaired by the AFP chief and INDOPACOM head Admiral John Aquilino.
The MDB-SEB was created to tackle traditional and non-traditional security concerns faced by both the Philippines and the United States as partners.
It is composed of key leaders from the AFP, Philippine National Police, Philippine Coast Guard, Department of National Defense, and the Department of Foreign Affairs.
During this year’s MDB-SEB Meeting, the co-chairs reaffirmed their mutual commitment and obligation to the Philippines-United States alliance to pursue the intent of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty of coming to each other’s support in addressing all security concerns.
The agenda covered matters of security cooperation activities and the strategic vision including maritime security, information sharing, and capacity and capability development, among others.
The productive discussions also opened opportunities for more robust engagements which will increase the pace of military-to-military engagement including annual bilateral exercises aimed to enhance the interoperability of both armed forces.
Bacarro and Aquilino also agreed to the conclusion of the Implementing Guidelines to operationalize the Maritime Security Framework designed to reinvigorate essential activities of maritime security awareness.
Likewise, both leaders expressed their commitment to accelerate infrastructure and facilities projects under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
The meeting resulted in the assurance of INDOPACOM’s support to the AFP Modernization by providing and soliciting more aid through the Foreign Military Financing to the Philippines.