The US and the Philippines are to hold joint naval maneuvers in the South China Sea next week between the main island of Luzon and a reef claimed by both Beijing and Manila, the Philippine Navy said yesterday.
The exercises taking place from Thursday to July 2 by the two allies are to be held about 108km east of the Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) in Taiwan, Philippine Navy spokesman Lieutenant-Commander Gregory Fabic said.
Chinese government vessels are still believed to be patrolling the waters around the shoal after a lengthy stand-off last year with the Philippines, which ended with a Philippine retreat.
“This was planned way back in 2010. Whatever happened since then was purely coincidental,” Fabic said when asked if holding the exercises there this year were a way for the Philippines to reassert its sovereignty over the shoal.
The maneuvers would be held over 12,347km2 of waters, he added.
Chinese embassy spokespeople in Manila could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Beijing claims it has sovereign rights over nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters far away from its main landmass and approaching the coasts of Southeast Asian countries.
Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the sea, and the area has for decades been regarded as a potential trigger for major military conflict in the region.
Since last month, the Philippine Navy has also been monitoring Chinese government vessels in the South China Sea stationed off a Philippine-controlled reef in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), called the Second Thomas Shoal (Renai Shoal, 仁愛暗沙).
Fabic said an unspecified number of US Navy ships, US Marines and aircraft will take part in the exercises alongside Philippine Navy and coast guard vessels and aircraft, Philippine Marines and navy and coastguard special operations teams.
“We will focus on communications, naval surface operations, counter-terrorism and maritime security,” he said.
“This is to increase the level of inter-operability between the Philippine Navy and the US Navy in the conduct of combined naval operations,” he added.
In other developments, China and Vietnam have agreed to set up a hotline to resolve disputes in the South China Sea, where clashes between fishermen have stoked tensions between the countries, state media reported yesterday.
The agreement was signed by agricultural authorities from Beijing and Hanoi on Wednesday, the state-run China Daily reported, amid a visit to China by Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang.
The dispute between China and Vietnam flares up periodically, most recently last month when Vietnam accused China of firing on a fishing boat in its waters.