US and Philippine commandos waded ashore yesterday in a mock assault to retake a small island in energy-rich waters disputed with China, part of a drill involving thousands of troops Beijing had said would raise the risk of armed conflict.
The exercises, part of annual US-Philippine war games on the southwestern island of Palawan, coincide with another standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels near the Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) in Taiwan, in a different part of the South China Sea.
China has territorial disputes with Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia across the South China Sea, each searching for gas and oil, while building up their navies and military alliances.
China said last week the drill would raise the risk of confrontation. Yesterday, Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai (崔天凱) said Beijing was committed to dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the dispute.
“We are certainly worried about the South China Sea issue,” Cui told a press briefing in Beijing. “Some people tried to mix two unrelated things, territorial sovereignty and freedom of navigation.”
The comments come before high-level talks with the administration of US President Barack Obama.
China, which claims the South China Sea based on historical records, has sought to resolve disputes bilaterally, but its neighbors worry over what some see as growing Chinese assertiveness in its claims in the region.
“Location [of the drill] is irrelevant,” Ensign Bryan Mitchell, spokesman for the US Marines, told reporters. “These exercises take place on a regular basis. This year it happens to be in Palawan. The planning for this took place months ago, prior to any events that are currently in the headlines.”
Obama has sought to reassure regional allies that Washington would serve as a counterbalance to China in the South China Sea, part of his campaign to “pivot” US foreign policy toward Asia after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Philippine military officials sought to play down the exercise.
Lieutenant General Juancho Sabban, military commander for the western Philippines, said the drill “simply means we want to work together, improve our skills.”
Sabban’s area of command includes Reed Bank and the Spratly Islands (南沙群島), a group of 250 mostly uninhabitable islets spread over 427,350km2 west of Palawan.
The Spratlys are claimed entirely by Taiwan, China and Vietnam, and in part by Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Proven and undiscovered oil reserve estimates in the South China Sea range as high as 213 billion barrels of oil, the US Energy Information Administration said in a 2008 report. That would surpass every country’s proven oil reserves except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, according to the BP Statistical Review.