Biggest-Ever US-Philippines Drills Begin; U.S. Reaffirms Mutual Defense Pledge in South China Sea

( – The United States and the Philippines began their largest-ever joint military drills on Tuesday, one day after China ended military exercises around Taiwan that included mock strikes against the self-governing island which it seeks to bring under its control.

Beijing issued warnings that the Philippines, situated adjacent to the both the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea hotspots, should not allow itself to be used by the U.S. in a bid to “contain” China.

China characterizes its claims to Taiwan and to resource-rich areas in the South China Sea as non-negotiable “core interest” issues.

The U.S. says it wants to uphold the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, and in the South China Sea, it seeks to assert “freedom of navigation” in the international waters of one of the world’s most crucial waterways, where China is locked in territorial disputes with several regional countries, including the Philippines.

As the “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) U.S.-Philippines military exercises got underway, the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers met in Washington for their first “two-plus-two” security talks in more than seven years.


Defense Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin reaffirmed during a joint news conference that the 72-year-old bilateral mutual defense treaty applies to armed attacks on U.S. and Philippines armed forces, aircraft and vessels “anywhere in the South China Sea.”

Austin also said the four ministers discussed plans to hold combined maritime operations in the South China Sea “with likeminded partners” later this year.

In a statement, the ministers expressed “strong objections” to China’s “unlawful maritime claims, militarization of reclaimed features [artificial islands], and threatening and provocative activities in the South China Sea.”

These included its attempts to disrupt Philippines’ activities in an area of the Spratly islands, hundreds of islets and reefs lying in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but claimed by Beijing.

The ministers called on China to comply with a “final and legally-binding” U.N. tribunal’s 2016 ruling in favor of the Philippines’ rights and jurisdiction in the area. China point-blank rejected the tribunal’s finding that there was no legal basis for its claims there.

This year’s Balikatan exercise, the 38th iteration of the drills, will include live-fire exercises in the South China Sea north-west of Manila, maritime security, amphibious, aviation and urban operations, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

In addition to some 12,000 U.S. and 5,000 Philippines personnel, more than 100 Australian troops will take part in the April 11-28 exercises, together with observers from Japan.

The drills come just days after the Pentagon and Manila announced the locations of four new bases where the host nation has agreed rotating U.S. forces may operate.

These are addition to five bases already used by U.S. troops under an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed in 2014.

Three of the new bases are on northern Luzon island, which apart from China itself is the landmass closest to Taiwan. The fourth is in the Philippines’ westernmost province, located near the Spratly islands.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in response to questions about the joint military exercises that they “should not target any third party and should be conducive to regional peace and stability.”

“U.S.-Philippines military cooperation must not interfere in South China Sea disputes, still less harm China’s territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests and security interests,” he said.

‘Other types of security challenges’

The Chinese Communist Party paper China Daily said in an editorial that despite claims that the exercises do not target any other country, “everything surrounding them seems to indicate something different.”

The paper said China is an important trading partner for the Philippines and there is “tremendous” potential for further bilateral cooperation.

By contrast, it said the increasing U.S. engagement “is obviously less about prosperity, more about consolidating military deployments under its ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy, which has a declared purpose of countering what it claims to be the ‘threat’ posed by China.”

China Daily also pointed to the newly-approved EDCA bases – and their strategic locations.

“It is to be hoped that Manila does not let itself be intimidated or coerced by Washington into sacrificing the interests of the Philippines to the U.S.’ strategy to contain China.”

At the joint press conference in Washington, Philippines Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo answered cautiously when asked about the EDCA bases in the light of a possible future conflict with China over Taiwan.

He said the bases “are mainly aimed at increasing or improving interoperability, as well as addressing potential human, humanitarian disasters or climate-related disasters.”

Manalo added that the sites could also put U.S. and Philippines forces “in a position to improve the interoperability and perhaps respond to other types of security challenges.”

Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on Monday that new bases to be used by the Americans will not be used for “offensive actions.”


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