US and Philippine forces launch combat drills in the disputed South China Sea

Manila, Philippines — US and Philippine troops launched their largest combat exercises in years on Monday in a show of allied firepower near the disputed South China Sea that has alarmed Beijing.

The annual exercises of the old treaty allies will take place until May 10. More than 16,000 troops will be involved, along with more than 250 French and Australian forces.

While the Philippine military insists that its Balikatan training – Tagalog for “shoulder-to-shoulder” – is not aimed at any particular country, some of its main conflict scenarios are in or near the disputed South China Sea, where the Chinese and Philippine coast Surveillance and escort ships have been involved in a series of increasingly tense territorial confrontations since last year.

In encounters in disputed areas, Chinese coast guard ships have resorted to water cannons, blockades and other dangerous maneuvers that have caused injuries to Philippine naval personnel and damaged supply boats.

The Philippine military said territorial defense is a major focus of this year’s exercises. “We are very serious about protecting our territory — that is why we are doing these Balikatan exercises,” Col. Michael Logico, who spoke on behalf of the Philippine military during the combat exercises, told The Associated Press.

As disputes between China and the Philippines have escalated, President Joe Biden and his administration have repeatedly warned that the United States is obliged to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if it comes under attack.

U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. William Jurney said at the ceremony that the large-scale military exercises will demonstrate that the 1951 mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines “is not just a piece of paper.”

Washington does not claim the disputed waters but has stated that freedom of navigation and overflight and the peaceful resolution of the disputes are in its national interest.

Philippine Military Chief of Staff Gen. Romeo Brawner, who opened the exercises with a ceremony, said that as the Pacific littoral countries, the United States and the Philippines “understand the importance of maritime cooperation in addressing the complex challenges facing peace and threaten security in our region.” region.”

China strongly criticized the drills, saying the Philippines was “cooperating” with countries outside Asia, in an apparent reference to the United States and its security partners, and warning that the drills could incite confrontation and undermine regional stability .

The combat exercises included a joint sailing of the US, Philippine and French navies in and near disputed waters off the western Philippine province of Palawan, the sinking of a mock enemy ship by combined US and Philippine firepower, and the recapture of an occupied island . according to the Philippine Army for the northwestern Philippines.

China specifically opposed the transport of a US ground-launched missile system to the northern Philippines ahead of the exercises. No rocket would be fired, but the aim was to create awareness among military participants about the hi-tech weapons in a tropical environment.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian expressed China’s serious concerns about the deployment of the missile system “on China’s doorstep.”

“The US action is exacerbating tensions in the region and increasing the risk of misjudgments and miscalculations,” he said in response to a question at a news briefing in Beijing last week. “The Philippines should think twice about being a pawn to the US at the expense of its security interests and stop sliding down the wrong path.”

The Biden administration has strengthened a series of alliances to better counter China, including in a possible confrontation over Taiwan, an island democracy that Beijing claims as its own.

This is in line with efforts by the Philippines under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to defend its territorial interests by stepping up joint military exercises with the US. He has also allowed rotating groups of U.S. forces to stay in additional Philippine military camps under a 2014 defense pact, including in the north of his country, which is just a maritime border away from Taiwan and southern China.


Associated Press journalist Iya Forbes in Manila contributed to this report.