The Philippines and the US launched war games yesterday at a naval base facing turbulent waters claimed by China, as the allies sought to highlight their expanding military alliance.
About 2,300 marines from both sides are taking part in the annual maneuvers, which this year are being staged alongside the South China Sea and come ahead of US President Barack Obama’s planned first visit to the Philippines next month.
The Philippines, which has been seeking US military support to counter what it perceives as a growing Chinese threat to its South China Sea territory, welcomed the exercises as another important plank in building its defense capabilities.
“Multilateral exercises and agreements are essential in our cooperation and operational readiness as a multi-capable force, ready to defend our country’s sovereignty and integrity,” Philippine Navy Vice-Commander Rear Admiral Jaime Bernardino said in a speech at the opening of the exercises.
The three-week Philippine-US Amphibious Landing Exercises (Phiblex) will involve two US warships and live ground-fire exercises, according to the Philippine military.
The Filipino exercises commander, Brigadier-General Remigio Valdez, said they would also include simulated amphibious assaults to capture islands held by hostile forces.
“We are building our capability on amphibious operations, so it’s part of the scenario,” he told reporters, although no specific hostile country was named.
The exercises were launched at a naval base in San Antonio, a town on the western coast of Luzon Island that faces the South China Sea.
The naval base is about 220km from the Scarborough Shoal — known as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) in Taiwan — a group of rocky outcrops that is one of the flashpoint areas in the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.
The Philippines insists it has sovereign rights to the shoal, which fishermen from coastal towns near San Antonio have sailed to for decades, because it is well within its internationally recognized exclusive economic zone.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea. Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have overlapping claims to parts of the sea.