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2,665 U.S. Troops Arriving in Philippines
20 March 2002
Not 1,700 as earlier reported but 2,665 US soldiers will take part in the Philippine-US Balikatan campaign set to start next month in Central Luzon, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said Wednesday, contradicting the announcement Tuesday of Armed Forces spokesperson Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan.
Reyes said 10 more military exercises involving US troops would be held this year, although these would be "relatively smaller" than Balikatan 02-1 and 02-2. "All of them are short - two-day, one-week exercises," he said.
But lawmakers expressed alarm at the growing number of US troops coming into the Philippines and raised the suspicion that this could signal the establishment of the country as a US staging ground in the region.
Reyes said there was a US proposal to merge the Balikatan with a larger military exercise that would involve several other countries.
He said the exercise would be called "Team Challenge" and would be spearheaded by the United States, which had been holding exercises with such countries as Australia, Korea and Thailand.
"Now there is a move to have all of these under one exercise and call it Team Challenge," Reyes said at a press conference. "If we have Balikatan form part of the larger exercise, then that will be a foreign policy issue and we might have to discuss that with the Department of Foreign Affairs and eventually seek clearance from the President."
Reyes pointed out that the annual Balikatan was a bilateral, and not multilateral, exercise.
If other foreign troops were to participate in Team Challenge and it would be held in the Philippines, then there would be a need to forge agreements with the other countries similar to the VFA.
For now, troops from other countries can only get close to the Balikatan exercises as "observers."
House Minority Leader Carlos Padilla (Nueva Vizcaya), Assistant Minority Leader Abraham Mitra (Palawan) and Negros Occidental Rep. Jose Apolinario Lozada Jr. also said that if the ongoing Balikatan 02-1 in Basilan was governed by Terms of Reference, a corresponding TOR should be drawn up for Balikatan 02-2 because of the large number of participating US troops.
Bayan Muna Rep. Crispin Beltran rejected the two Balikatan exercises outright and accused the government of helping the United States set up new military bases in Southern Mindanao.
But President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said the impending arrival of thousands of US troops should not alarm the public because this was part of the joint war games regularly held under the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement.
She said those protesting the US troops' arrival were the same "anti-American" groups that objected to the VFA.
"These are the people who are always criticizing the Balikatan, the VFA, which the Supreme Court has upheld as constitutional," she said. "These are the anti-Americans, and we have to live with that."
The President said as many as 5,000 US troops were arriving in one year for the Balikatan exercises.
Martin P Marfil and Juliet L Javellana, in Manilla