Philippines, US start largest ever drills in South China Sea

Balikatan exercises will involve more than 17,000 troops and come amid rising regional tensions.

Troops from the Philippines and the US salute one another at the beginning of military exercises on March 31
The US and Philippines armed forces are deepening cooperation [File: Aaron Favila/AP Photo]

The United States and the Philippines have begun their largest-ever military drills, which will include a live-fire exercise on a sunken ship in the South China Sea.

More than 17,000 soldiers are taking part in the annual event, known as Balikatan, with about 12,200 American troops, 5,400 members of the Philippines armed forces (AFP) as well as representatives from other countries, including Australia. Balikatan means ‘shoulder to shoulder’ in Tagalog.

The drills are scheduled to end on April 28.

“The Balikatan Exercise enhances both the AFP and the United States Armed Forces’ tactics, techniques, and procedures across a wide range of military operations,” AFP spokesperson Colonel Medel Aguilar said in a statement released by the US Embassy last week.  “It increases our ability to work together effectively and efficiently in response to various crisis situations.”

“Balikatan provides unparalleled opportunities to demonstrate the strength and readiness of the Philippine-US security alliance,” Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Huvane, Balikatan Combined Joint Information Director, said in the statement, adding that such activities were “important investments” in honing the ability of US and Philippines forces to work together in a variety of military operations.

The latest Balikatan exercises are getting under way as China concludes three days of military drills around Taiwan that the island’s president described as a threat to regional security and Japan said were “intimidation“.

The Philippines has come under increasing pressure from China in recent years over Beijing’s expansive claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

In February, Manila accused the Chinese coastguard of using a “military grade laser” against the crew of a Philippines navy ship that was on a resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines, which lies within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

In 2012, Beijing seized control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, and Manila the next year began legal proceedings over China’s claim to the sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague later found there was “no legal basis” to China’s claim based on its so-called “nine-dash line”, which originated in a 1947 map of the sea, but Beijing has refused to recognise the ruling.

The Philippines recently agreed to allow the US access to more of its military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries.

It is also boosting security ties with Japan.

Public surveys show most Filipinos are supportive of closer ties with the US, although there were a number of demonstrations as Balikatan began among people concerned Manila could be dragged into a wider conflict.

Source: Al Jazeera