This Year's U.S. Philippine Military Exercises Will Be the Biggest Ever Conducted

This Year's U.S. Philippine Military Exercises Will Be the Biggest Ever Conducted
U.S. and Philippine Marines practice immediate action drills on a live-fire range during Exercise Balikatan 2019 (U.S. Indo-Pacific Command)

The Lede: The annual war games held in the Philippines and conducted with the U.S. and associated allies are scheduled from April 11 to 28. This will be the largest such exercise ever conducted and come amid heightened tensions with China.

What we Know:

  • A total of 17,680 soldiers will take part in the annual drills. This number includes 12,000 U.S. troops, 5,000 Filipinos, and 111 Australian soldiers. Japan will also send an observer delegation. The U.S. also recently signed a deal with the Philippines that gives the American military access to four more military bases in the country.
  • This year’s exercises will include live-fire exercises in the controversially disputed South China Sea for the first time as well as a simulated defense of a tiny Philippine island nearly 300 kilometers south of Taiwan and a staged amphibious landing on the western island of Palawan, the closest part of the Philippines to the disputed Spratly Islands.

The Background: The Philippines have had national security concerns regarding China in recent years with the respective countries’ vessels often having stand-offs in the South China Sea. Attacks on Philippine vessels and maritime disputes that escalate to a violent conflict would be subject to the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty. Under this treaty, the U.S. would intervene on the side of the Philippines. In February, the Philippines claimed that a Chinese vessel pointed a ‘military grade laser’ at a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said that this was not enough to invoke the treaty. Last year’s annual exercises involved about 8,900 personnel while the previous largest exercise involved 11,000 troops in 2015.

Likely Outcomes:

  • China’s tests of competing countries’ claims on the South China Sea will continue to escalate with the aim of probing the capabilities of rivals in the region as well as the commitment of the U.S. to backing these claims. Chinese coast guard, navy, and fishing fleets will continue to be used for this purpose.
  • U.S. and Philippine military cooperation will continue to increase as American geopolitical attention focuses on the perceived threat from China. Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and other regional partners are likely to follow suit.


  • "Any armed forces has the right to conduct military exercises."  – Michael Logico, Colonel of the Philippine Army and spokesman for the war games
  • "All of these exercises that we are doing are in response to all types of threats that we may be facing in the future, both man-made and natural." – Romeo Brawner, Commanding General of the Philippine Army
  • “The U.S. has not only heightened tension, driven wedge between China and Philippines but has also disturbed and upset the joint effort of countries in this region to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.” – Statement from the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines

Good Reads:

Philippines, U.S. to hold biggest war games in years (Reuters)

China Slams US for Expanding Military Access in Philippines (Bloomberg)

Philippine President Marcos says China laser not enough to activate U.S. defense pact (PBS News Hour)