Philippines, US to start annual joint military drills

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The Philippines and the United States will start their annual joint military exercise dubbed "Balikatan" on Monday, the Philippine military chief said on Sunday.

This year's exercise is a "scaled-down version" of the previous drills due to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Philippine defense and military authorities.

Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said this year's "Balikatan" will only involve 1,700 troops -- 700 from the U.S. and 1,000 from the Philippines.

"Some portions of the exercises will be virtual, but we also have minimal physical contact. There will also be actual field training exercises but not as big as those done in the previous years," he said.

Sobejana said the two-week joint military drills will officially open on Monday at the AFP's main headquarters in the capital.

Unlike in previous opening ceremonies, he said Monday's event is closed to the public and the media as part of the safety precautions due to COVID-19. The rest of the drills will also be closed for coverage.

"Balikatan", a Tagalog phrase for "shoulder-to-shoulder", is the most comprehensive among several regular U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises.

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