Tue, Sep 30, 2014 - Page 1 News List

Philippines, US launch joint exercises

AFP, PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines

Thousands of Philippine and US marines yesterday began military exercises close to flashpoints in the South China Sea, where Beijing is involved in bitter territorial disputes with its neighbors.

The 12-day amphibious landing exercises — involving about 3,500 US marines and sailors and 1,200 Filipino counterparts — were officially launched from the Philippines’ western island of Palawan, facing the South China Sea.

China claims the sea almost in its entirety. Its increasingly assertive efforts to stake its claims have heightened tensions with its neighbors, including the Philippines, which has conflicting claims to parts of the waters.

US and Philippine military officials said the launching ceremony and the exercises were not related to the dispute with China.

“Our primary reason is to establish interoperability and to build capacity in case a [natural] disaster occurs,” US Marine Brigadier-General Paul Kennedy said, when asked if the exercises were tied to a potential conflict.

Regional Philippine military chief Admiral Alexander Soria said the two sides were “trying to develop a bilateral force that can respond immediately to disaster situations and that we speak the same language once we do.”

In Manila, Philippine marine spokesman Lieutenant Jerber Anthony Belonio said that the location of the opening ceremony was not linked to the territorial dispute.

“This has no relation whatsoever. This is just to show the capabilities of our new marine landing brigade, which coincidentally is based in Palawan,” he said.

The Philippines has recently been building up its military assets in Palawan.

The poorly equipped military has also been improving its ties with defense allies — particularly the US, the former colonial power — in the face of Chinese saber-rattling.

The US Marine Corps said the exercises would “enhance the interoperability between US Navy and Marine Corps forces and their Philippine counterparts, with a focus on improving our bilateral response to regional issues and maritime security crises.”

This year’s exercises are to include small arms and artillery live-fire training, a mechanized assault, paratroop operations and a simulated boat raid.

The amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu, along with two support ships, arrived at the former US Subic naval base at the weekend to take part in this week’s exercises.

In April, the allies signed a defense accord giving US forces greater access to Philippine bases as part of a US rebalancing of military power toward Asia.

Although the US has not taken sides in the territorial disputes, it has warned China against “destabilizing actions” in the South China Sea.

The sea is claimed in part by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, as well as China and the Philippines.

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