BY Simone Orendain | Manila – Thousands of United States and Philippine troops kicked off joint military exercises Monday against the backdrop of a standoff in the South China Sea, between the Philippines and China.
U.S. military officials say at 4,500 this is the largest number of American troops who will participate in annual war games with the Philippine military. They are joining 2,300 Filipino troops. In speeches during the opening ceremonies of the two-week event, called “balikatan” or shoulder-to-shoulder in Filipino, officials from both countries reaffirmed their commitment to upholding their mutual defense partnership.
Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Jesse Dellosa, said while the partnership has helped with the country’s response to internal threats, there still remains a “shadow of doubt” in the country’s ability to handle certain international issues – a reference to the territorial dispute with China.
“Given the international situation we are in, I say that this exercise, in connection with all those that we have had in the past, is a timely and mutually beneficial event for us and our U.S. counterparts,” he said.
Last week, the Philippine Navy discovered at least eight Chinese fishing vessels near Scarborough Shoal, which Manila says is well within its exclusive economic zone. Officials say the boats held endangered marine resources such as giant clams and live sharks and they tried to make arrests and confiscate the contraband.
But Chinese government ships intervened, going between the warship and the fishing boats. After days of diplomatic talks that hit a stalemate, the fishing vessels left with their cargo intact, and a Philippine Coast Guard ship was left facing the two Chinese surveillance vessels.
The Philippines, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims in the South China Sea. China claims nearly the entire sea based on a historical map. The Philippines says the shoal is part of its territory based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which designates a country’s exclusive economic zone as 370 kilometers from its coastline.
The contested sea straddles some of the world’s busiest sea lanes, has abundant fishing waters and is a potential source of vast oil and natural gas reserves.
Some of the joint exercises this year are taking place on Palawan, an island province that sits on the South China Sea. A U.S. military spokesman says one of the drills involves the retaking of a Philippine oil rig at the hands of terrorists in the South China Sea.
Although China has consistently expressed displeasure over the waters being an exercise site, U.S. and Philippine officials say the war games are aimed at crisis planning for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Philippine Army spokesman Major Emmanuel Garcia says there is no cause for alarm.
“No country in the Pacific or anywhere in the world should be concerned about the exercise because this exercise is not directed toward any nation,” said Garcia. “This exercise is purely for the [uplifting] of the skills of both the Philippine and U.S. soldiers in responding to disasters whether manmade or natural.”
On Sunday the deputy presidential spokeswoman said that the joint exercises are not a show of force against China. Spokeswoman Abigail Valte says the standoff is to be resolved through diplomatic means.