SitRep: New restrictions on U.S. troops in the Philippines

More than 6,000 U.S. troops are in the Philippines for an annual training exercise. U.S. military officials have ordered all bars, nightclubs and most restaurants off limits to American personnel.

As the U.S. military looks to launch more rotational deployments to the Philippines, the island nation is hosting more than 3,500 Marines are training alongside Philippine troops in the largest amphibious exercise in at least 15 years, featuring more than 11,000 American and Filipino personnel as the Corps looks to launch more rotational deployments in that country.

Beyond the 5,000 Philippine troops participating in Exercise Balikatan, the largest contingent comes from the Marine Corps, which has deployed about 3,500 personnel from major commands based in Japan and the U.S. 3rd Marine Division, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, 3rd Marine Logistics Group and I Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters are in the Philippines for Exercise Balikatan, which is Tagalog for "shoulder-to-shoulder." They've teamed re teaming with about 2,500 U.S. sailors, soldiers and airmen and roughly 5,000 Filipino troops for the annual 10-day event exercise.

It's the largest iteration of the Balikatan since at least 2000, said . Since U.S. and Filipino troops have been participating in the exercise for decades, Col. Mike Sweeney, the officer-in-charge for Balikatan's Joint Exercise Support Group, said Marine officials don't have records to say it's the largest exercise to date, and But the boost comes at a time when both countries the U.S. and the Philippines are looking to expand grow an already tight partnership.

The Marine Corps, in particular, has been expanding its presence in the Asia-Pacific region for the last several years. Washington and Manila are involved in talks, and U.S. and Filipino officials have been discussing an agreement to place Marines in the Philippines for short-term rotational deployments — much like the agreement governing Marines' annual six-month swing through northern Australia.

The move is politically sensitive. Many Filipinos still strongly support their government's decision, made in 1992, to end the American military's permanent presence there.

At the same time, many see the benefit of closer ties with Washington. Just days before Balikatan began the exercise, Philippine officials announced they are said they wereseeking more "substantive" support from the U.S. with regard to on how to countering China's rapid and sometimes aggressive expansion in the South China Sea, Reuters reported.

U.S. and Philippine leaders have been careful to state that Exercise Balikatan is independent of any political anxiety related to has nothing to do with China's rise. Recurring Sweeney said recurring exercises like this one change year-to-year based on troop and equipment availability, training needs, host nation desires and competing demands, Sweeney said.

"In the case of Balikatan 15, the pieces fell into place to enable a large-scale exercise with approximately 6,000 U.S. personnel participating," he said. "The increased nature of this year's exercise demonstrates our commitment to our partner nation and further builds capability for all participants."

New this year is a command post exercise involving I MEF Marines and Filipino troops in Palawan, an island province between the South China and Sulu seas. The complex training scenario involving a full staff "demonstrates the level of proficiency of our Filipino counterparts as we gain training opportunities for all components to plan, coordinate, and execute military-to-military activities through a range of military operations," Sweeney said.

Troops Marines are also participating in several field-training exercises at various installations including Crow Valley, Fort Magsaysay, Clark Air Field and Subic Bay, Sweeney said. They'll conduct a regimental-level amphibious and air assault operations, and multiple battalion-level fire support coordination exercises. The final exercise will consist of a two-day-long combined-arms live-fire training event, he said.

The beefed-up version of Balikatan demonstrates the Corps' commitment to the Philippine military and people, Sweeney said. It comes at a sensitive time for the two countries, with a junior enlisted Marine facing murder charges there in private first class on trial in the country for allegedly killing of a transgender woman last during an October during an training exercise near Subic Bay. The incident sparked protests and reignited decades-old anti-American sentiment.

As a consequence, all U.S. personnel participating in Balikatan have been banned from visiting local bars, nightclubs and most restaurants. Sweeney said that order did not result from any fear of backlash from the Philippine people, whom he described as "extremely gracious with all members of the military."

"The Philippine people have been extremely gracious with all members of the military," he said. "There are currently no concerns with regards to troop safety or protests," he said.

In addition to the U.S. and Philippine forces participating in Balikatan, about Australian 70 Australian troops are involved, said Capt. Alex Lim, a Marine Corps spokesman. At least a dozen other nations, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, India and Singapore, also sent observers.

Senior including several whom the U.S. military officials have indicated plans are taking shape to expand partnerships with each of those countries in years to come.