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US, Philippine forces launch combat drills in South China Sea

US, Philippine forces launch combat drills in South China Sea

 


MANILA, Philippines (AP) U.S. and Philippine forces launched their biggest combat exercises in years on Monday in a display of allied firepower near the disputed South China Sea that has alarmed Beijing.

The long-time allies' annual exercises will run until May 10 and involve more than 16,000 of their military personnel, as well as more than 250 French and Australian forces.

While the Philippine military maintains that Balikatan Tagalog for shoulder-to-shoulder training is not aimed at any particular country, some of its main conflict scenarios are taking place in or near the disputed South China Sea, where Chinese and Philippine coast guards and the ships that accompany them have been the subject of a series of increasingly tense territorial clashes since last year.

During encounters in contested areas, Chinese coast guard vessels have resorted to water cannons, blockades and other dangerous maneuvers that have caused injuries to Philippine Navy personnel and damaged ships. refueling.

The Philippine military said one of the main objectives of this year's exercises was territorial defense. We are very serious about protecting our territory, that's why we are doing these Balikatan exercises, Col. Michael Logico, who speaks for the Philippine military on the combat exercises, told the Associated Press .

As disputes between China and the Philippines intensify, President Joe Biden and his administration have repeatedly warned that the United States is obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest ally in Asia, if it is attacked.

U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. William Jurney said during the ceremony that the large-scale military exercises will demonstrate that the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines is not just a piece of paper.

Washington does not lay claim to the disputed waters but has said freedom of navigation and overflight as well as peaceful resolution of disputes are in its national interest.

Philippine Chief of Military Staff Gen. Romeo Brawner, who opened the exercises in a ceremony, said that as Pacific coastal nations, the United States and the Philippines understand the importance of maritime cooperation to address the complex challenges that threaten peace and security in our region. .

China sharply criticized the exercises, saying the Philippines was aligning itself with countries outside Asia, in obvious reference to the United States and its security partners, and warned that the exercises could provoke confrontation and undermine regional stability.

The combat exercises will include joint navigation of the U.S., Philippine and French navies in and near contested waters off the western Philippine province of Palawan, sinking a conventional enemy vessel by combined U.S. firepower and the Philippines, and the recapture of an occupied island. northwest of the Philippines, according to the Philippine military.

China specifically objected to the transportation of a missile system launched from U.S. soil to the northern Philippines ahead of the exercises. No missiles would be fired, but the goal was to familiarize military participants with high-tech weapons in a tropical setting.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian expressed China's serious concern over the deployment of the missile system on China's doorstep.

The US decision exacerbates tensions in the region and increases the risk of misjudgments and miscalculations, he said in response to a question at a press briefing in Beijing last week. The Philippines needs to think twice before behaving like a cat's paw for the United States at the expense of its security interests and stop sliding down the wrong path.

The Biden administration has strengthened an arc of alliances to better counter China, including in a possible confrontation over Taiwan, an island democracy that Beijing claims as its own.

This is in line with the Philippines' efforts under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to defend its territorial interests by strengthening joint military exercises with the United States. He has also allowed rotating batches of U.S. forces to remain in additional Philippine military camps under a 2014 defense pact, including in his country's north, which lies just on the maritime border of Taiwan and Japan. southern China.

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Associated Press reporter Iya Forbes in Manila contributed to this report.

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