Japan’s Self-Defense Forces Eye Joining Balikatan Exercises; U.S.-Philippine Drills Involved Over 17,000 Personnel Last Year

REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
A Filipino soldier fires a Javelin anti-tank weapon system during a live exercise as part of the annual US-Philippines joint military exercises called “Balikatan” at Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija province, Philippines, April 13, 2023.

WASHINGTON — Full-scale participation by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces is being considered for annual joint military exercises conducted by U.S. and Philippine forces, called Balikatan, according to sources familiar with U.S. and Philippine affairs.

The move is believed to aim at putting a check on China, which is pursuing coercive moves in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, by strengthening collaboration between Japan, the United States and the Philippines.

Reinforcement of security collaboration is expected to be a major agenda item at the first summit meeting among Japan, the United States and the Philippines, scheduled to be held in Washington next Thursday.

In addition to the United States and the Philippines, participants in the Balikatan drills include France, Australia and other countries. Participants have conducted launch drills for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, in anticipation of defending against an enemy fleet, as well as exercises in cyber warfare and disaster assistance.

The drills’ scale is expanding. Last year, a record number of more than 17,000 personnel took part in the exercises. The drills are planned to be conducted in the South China Sea and elsewhere later this month.

The SDF have already started taking part in the exercises in an observer status. Participation on a full-scale basis will make it possible for the SDF to increase the number of dispatched personnel and have them engage in more practical training, according to the sources.

In November last year, the Japanese and Philippine governments agreed to begin discussions toward a reciprocal access agreement (RAA), which will make mutual exchanges smoother, and are accelerating their negotiations.

In an online media conference on Wednesday, Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez said that leaders of Japan, the United States and the Philippines are expected to agree on conducting joint patrols of the South China Sea in the upcoming summit meeting.

The patrols will be conducted under separate military and coast guard frameworks, according to the ambassador. He also said that joint statement will be issued after the summit meeting.