Thousands of US and Filipino troops began annual military exercises yesterday which the Philippines said were vital to building its defense capabilities against the rising threat of China.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario used the launch of the 12-day Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) maneuvers to accuse China of destabilizing Asia with aggressive and illegal actions in the South China Sea.
“For our region, excessive and exaggerated maritime and territorial claims have not only created uncertainty, but have undermined the rule of law,” Del Rosario said in a speech at the military headquarters in Metro Manila. “Regional peace and stability have been placed at serious risk.”
Del Rosario later told reporters he was referring specifically to China.
China claims most of the South China Sea, including waters and tiny rock outcrops near the coasts of smaller neighbors such as the Philippines.
Tensions have escalated in recent years as China has sought to stamp its authority over the region. The Philippines has accused China of occupying a shoal close to its main island and has appealed to the UN to rule on the validity of Chinese claims to the resource-rich sea.
The Philippines has sought closer diplomatic and military ties with the US, its former colonial ruler, amid the rising tensions.
The two countries share a 61-year-old mutual defense pact, which requires that the US comes to the aid of the Philippines if it is attacked.
Del Rosario said the Balikatan exercises are very important.
“For my country, we need to secure our borders and protect our territorial integrity more vigorously than we have before,” he said. “Balikatan, with its complicated and complete set of exercises, is an important contribution in not only preparing both our armed forces to work together, but also in building my country’s own capacity to defend itself.”
The maneuvers involve more than 8,000 US and Filipino troops, 30 military aircraft, including a dozen US F/A-18 Hornets, and three naval vessels, the two countries said.