US/Philippine military exercise starts

US high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) will be used during the Philippine exercise. Source: Wikimedia

Around 8,000 US and Philippine personnel have begun their annual military drills against a backdrop of tension over Beijing’s expansion into the South China Sea with Manila keen to downplay the relevance of the exercises.

Most contentiously, the combined armed forces will simulate retaking an oil-and-gas platform and practice an amphibious landing on a Philippine beach.

It will also test communications, logistics and mobility procedures to address humanitarian and maritime, Philippine defence spokespeople said.

“The Balikatan exercise is designed not to address a particular concern but the whole lump in the spectrum of warfare,” Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, the Philippine military’s exercise director, announced to the media. “China is not part of the idea.”

Lieutenant-General John Toolan, commander of US Marines in the Pacific, told the media that it was prudent to plan for any situation.

Asked if that included a security emergency in the South China Sea, Toolan replied: “It does, absolutely.”

A small detachment of Australian troops has joined the exercise while Vietnam and Japan sent officers to observe.

US defence secretary Ash Carter, will observe the exercises next week, underscoring the significance of the manoeuvres.

China’s advances into the South China Sea over the past year have included land reclamation and the construction of runways and deep-water ports on the reefs and atolls.

The US Navy has conducted what it calls “freedom of navigation” patrols in the waters, sailing near disputed islands occupied by China to underscore its right to navigate the disputed sea.

Washington has said it would continue to challenge what it considered China’s unfounded maritime claims, despite Beijing’s objections to such exercises.

China claims almost all the South China Sea, which is believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims with China.

Beijing says it will defend what it regards as sovereign territory. “China will firmly safeguard the sovereignty and related rights in the South China Sea,” China’s President Xi Jinping told his US counterpart Barack Obama at the fourth Nuclear Security Summit in Washington at the weekend.

While acknowledging that Beijing “respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight other countries are entitled to under international law,” Xi said that Beijing would “not accept any freedom of navigation as an excuse to undermine China’s sovereignty and national security interests”.