Thousands of US soldiers are scheduled to begin nearly two weeks of war games in the Philippines tomorrow as the two nations look to strengthen their military alliance amid concerns over China’s rising power.
The Balikatan (“Shoulder-to-shoulder”) exercises are an annual event, but this year are expected to attract a greater focus with some of the drills set to be held close to sensitive South China Sea waters claimed by Beijing.
The Philippines insists the exercises, involving 4,500 US personnel and 2,300 Filipino troops, should not be seen by China as a provocation.
“Our aim is not against any country, our aim is to protect maritime security and to protect the interests of our country,” Philippine military spokesman for Balikatan Major Emmanuel Garcia said.
Nevertheless, Garcia confirmed US and Philippine ships would stage drills in waters facing the South China Sea, while Filipino leaders have repeatedly said that China is one of the country’s main “maritime security” concerns.
China claims all of the South China Sea as an historic right, even waters close to the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.
The competing claims to the strategically vital waters have long made the area one of Asia’s potential flashpoints for military conflict.
The Philippines has complained over the past two years that China has become increasingly aggressive in staking its claim to the waters, accusing Beijing of acts such as firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen.
Tensions spiked again this month when Philippine and Chinese ships became locked in a standoff at the Scarborough Shoal (黃岩島), which is also claimed by Taiwan.
After nearly a week, both sides have refused to back down and are still keeping civilian vessels at the shoal, 230k west of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, in an effort to assert sovereignty.
Facing the perceived growing threat from China, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III last year called for closer military ties with the US.
Aquino’s appeal last year was welcomed by the US, which has been seeking to rebuild its presence across the Asia Pacific, partly to counter the growing political, economic and military might of China.
Aquino said last month that although there would be no return to permanent US bases in the Philippines, he welcomed a greater US military presence through more joint exercises such as Balikatan.
In this context, Balikatan will hold extra significance in terms of sending a message to China, according to John Blaxland, a regional security and political expert from the Australian National University.
“It’s a subtle message affirming for the Philippines that the US is serious about playing in Asia and will lend assistance to those in need,” Blaxland said.
The Balikatan exercises, which run from tomorrow until April 27, are scheduled to be held on Luzon as well as Palawan, a narrow island that forms the country’s western-most landmass.
The Philippines and the US have emphasized that Balikatan is not focused solely on conflict, with troops also set to conduct humanitarian and disaster-relief exercises.