Cool it, Philippines urges US, N. Korea
Forty US aircraft, including a squadron of F/A-18 Hornet jet fighters, are flying into the Philippines starting Friday for annual joint exercises with the Philippine military, amid a North Korean threat to launch nuclear strikes against the United States and US moves to strengthen its regional defences in the Pacific.
Worried about the safety of its citizens on the Korean Peninsula, however, the Philippines on Thursday urged a toning down of rhetoric between the North and the United States to ease tensions in the region.
Maj. Emmanuel Garcia, spokesperson for the joint US-Philippine exercises, on Thursday said a US military ship, the Whidbey Island-class Tortuga, had docked on Manila Bay to bring equipment and American personnel participating in the war games.
Garcia said the 29th Balikatan exercises would begin Friday at the Commissioned Officers Club in Camp Aguinaldo, national headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Philippine officials led by Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and AFP chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista will join US Ambassador Harry Thomas and US Deputy Exercise Director Brig. Gen.
Richard Simcock II at the opening ceremony.
Garcia said 14 US military aircraft arrived in Clark Air Base in Clark, Pampanga province, on Monday.
Garcia said the joint manoeuvres had nothing to do with North Korea’s threat of war against South Korea and the United States.
“I hope this will not be interpreted and viewed as something against any country because this exercise is meant to upgrade our skills, knowledge, tactics and procedures… in responding to disasters,” Garcia said in an interview with the Inquirer.
Told that some sectors were anxious that the Philippines might draw the ire of North Korea because of the war
games, Garcia said, “Those are (just) purely concerns.”
“We are hoping that will not happen and the tension on the Korean Peninsula will dissolve in a peaceful and diplomatic manner,” he said.
Evacuation of Filipinos
Garcia said the joint exercises called “Balikatan” (shoulder to shoulder), had been going on for years. This year’s war games will proceed despite tensions on the Korean Peninsula, he said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the Philippine Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, remained alert in case the 40,000 Filipinos on the peninsula needed to be evacuated.
Raul Hernandez, spokesperson for the department, said the Philippines viewed with “grave concern” North Korea’s threats of war against the South.
“The Philippine government continues to closely monitor the situation and advises the Filipinos in South Korea to remain alert,” Hernandez said.
If the situation deteriorates to the point that evacuation becomes necessary, the Filipinos will be repatriated through Busan, Gimhae and Daegu in the southern part of South Korea, he said.
The Philippine Navy has placed three of its ships on alert, while the Philippine Air Force has two C130 planes ready for deployment to South Korea to bring Filipinos home from the peninsula.
Squadron of Hornets
Garcia said 12 F/A-18 jet fighters would fly in today to take part in the exercises, which will be held in several locations in Central Luzon.
“The Hornets are twin-engine supersonic, all-weather carrier-capable fighter jets designed to attack ground targets. The F/A-18 has been used by the US Navy as demonstration aircraft since 1986,” Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr., the military’s spokesperson, said.
“These air assets will also provide air logistics support and services to both US and Philippine military service members supporting (Balikatan),” he added.
The Philippine military, Burgos said, will deploy nine aircraft of the Philippine Air Force and three vessels of the Philippine Navy.
He said more than 8,000 Filipino and American soldiers would jointly train in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
Garcia said the field training exercises involving US and Philippine Army personnel would be held in Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija province, while the two countries’ Air Force personnel would train in Clark and in Crow Valley in Tarlac province.
US and Philippine Navy personnel will train in maritime domain awareness and maritime patrol in Subic, Zambales province, he said.
Military officials from South Korea, Australia, Brunei, Japan and Thailand will meet today with US and Philippine military officials for a roundtable discussion of maritime security in Camp Aguinaldo.
With a report from Tarra Quismundo