CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The U.S. military will scale back participation in its annual joint exercise with the Philippines due to ongoing relief efforts in Japan, Marine Corps and Navy officials said Friday.

The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit based in Okinawa will not be part of Balikatan, which has already begun in some areas of the Philippines but officially kicks off Tuesday, according to Marine Corps officials.

The 31st MEU is currently aboard the USS Essex, the lead ship in a Navy amphibious ready group that is floating off the coast of Japan and providing disaster relief as part of Operation Tomodachi.

The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said Friday that it could not confirm definitively that the Essex Amphibious Ready Group will not participate in Balikatan but that is highly unlikely due to the ongoing relief mission.

Meanwhile, the headquarters battalion of the 3rd Marine Division has reduced its commitment of non-essential personnel to Balikatan and exercise sites are being consolidated, Marine officials said.

The United States has positioned much of its Japan-based fleet along with an additional aircraft carrier and other ships to the northeast of the country where a record 9.0-magnitude earthquake and massive tsunamis have killed more than 11,570 people, forced 170,000 others into shelters, and dangerously damaged reactors at a nuclear energy plant.

But the disaster in Japan will not block the U.S. from training with the Philippine armed forces this month.

About 6,000 U.S. servicemembers will be part of Balikatan including 500 soldiers from the Eighth Army in South Korea, according to a U.S. Army news release this week. The Army, which is coordinating the exercise, could not be reached Thursday or Friday for a detailed breakdown of participants.

The 4th Marine Regiment out of Camp Schwab on Okinawa has been designated as the Marine component for Balikatan, and more than 420 Marines from the unit are currently in the Philippines for the training, according to the Marine Corps.

Balikatan, which means “shoulder to shoulder” in the Philippine language Tagalog, has been held for 27 years and will focus on combined military operations and preparation for humanitarian relief and assistance in the wake of natural disasters.

Also, Philippine and U.S. servicemembers are teaming up on projects in central and southern Luzon that will include free medical, dental and veterinary care, and the construction and repair of schools and other public buildings.

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