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Balikatan exercise in April will be biggest ever —official

The Philippines and the United States will carry out their biggest ever joint military drills next month, a spokesperson for the annual war games said on Tuesday, highlighting improved ties with the Western power under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

This year's "Balikatan" or 'shoulder-to-shoulder' drills also come against the backdrop of what the Philippines calls "aggressive" Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

The drills, held from April 11 to 28, will see 17,600 participants from both sides, including around 12,000 from the United States, and "live fire exercises into the water" for the first time, according to Colonel Michael Logico, director of the Armed Forces of the Philippines' training center and spokesperson for the event.

"This is officially the largest Balikatan exercise," Logico said.

In a statement, US Embassy Press Attaché Kanishka Gangopadhyay said they cannot disclose the deployment information for participating US forces "due to operational security considerations."

Previously, the biggest joint drills were undertaken in 2015, with more 11,000 troops participating.

The larger-scale drills follow Marcos' decision last month to expand the United States' access to his country's military bases, which China says undermines regional stability.

Regarding the possibility of the joint exercises further infuriating China, Logico said, "We have the absolute, inalienable right to defend our territory. We are here to show that we are combat ready."

The Balikatan exercises are to be carried out across several provinces, including Palawan, which is near the South China Sea. They will also see some 111 participants from the Australian defense force, though their participation will be limited to "smaller land-based exercises," Logico said. 

“It is outward-looking because we are focusing on coastal defense [and] maritime defense. We really have to go to those areas, territorial areas to exercise these concepts. The mission of the AFP as our constitutional mandate is to protect the sovereignty of the state,” Logico added in Maki Pulido’s “24 Oras” report on Tuesday.

“These are fictional threats that the Philippines could actually experience. What are the different types that possible invasion or any warfare that we should be prepared [for],” Philippine Army spokesperson Colonel Xerxes Trinidad said. — Reuters/with Richa Noriega/BM, GMA News