Philippines, U.S. defence chiefs hope to resume joint military drill

FILE PHOTO: Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana answer questions during a Reuters interview at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco/

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine and U.S. defence chiefs on Sunday expressed hopes to resume the joint “Balikatan” military exercise that was cancelled last year, as they discussed the situation in the South China Sea.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin III also discussed in a telephone conference recent developments in regional security, according to a statement issued by Lorenzana’s department.

“Both are looking forward to the conduct of Exercise Balikatan,” the statement said.

Their conversation comes just days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, also in a phone call, expressed their shared concerns about Chinese vessels, which Manila believes are manned by militia, in the South China Sea.

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 militia were aboard.

Austin, during the telephone conference, reiterated the importance of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries, while Lorenzana committed to discussing the matter with President Rodrigo Duterte.

In February, Duterte said he had not made a decision yet on the future of the two-decade-old troop deployment agreement with the United States.

The VFA provides the legal framework under which U.S. troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines.

Relations between the United States and its former Asian colony have been complicated since 2016 when Duterte, who has repeatedly made statements condemning U.S. foreign policy while befriending China, rose to power.

Duterte has said the United States must pay more if it wants to maintain the VFA, which he unilaterally cancelled last year in an angry response to an ally being denied a U.S. visa.

The VFA’s withdrawal period has been twice extended, creating what Philippine officials say is a window for better terms to be agreed.

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

Austin “would look into the issue and bring it to the attention of the office concerned”, the statement said.