Thousands of U.S. soldiers are scheduled to begin nearly two weeks of war games in the Philippines on Monday as the two nations look to strengthen their military alliance amid concerns over China’s rising power.
The Balikatan (“Shoulder-to-shoulder”) exercises are an annual event, but this year are expected to attract a greater focus with some of the drills set to be held close to sensitive South China Sea waters claimed by Beijing.
The Philippines insists the exercises, involving 4,500 U.S. personnel and 2,300 Filipino troops, should not be seen by China as a provocation.
“Our aim is not against any country, our aim is to protect maritime security and to protect the interests of our country,” Philippine military spokesman for Balikatan Major Emmanuel Garcia said.
Nevertheless, Garcia confirmed U.S. and Philippine ships would stage drills in waters facing the South China Sea, while Filipino leaders have repeatedly said that China is one of the country’s main “maritime security” concerns.
China claims all of the South China Sea as an historic right, even waters close to the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.
The competing claims to the strategically vital waters have long made the area one of Asia’s potential flashpoints for military conflict.
The Philippines has complained over the past two years that China has become increasingly aggressive in staking its claim to the waters, accusing Beijing of acts such as firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen.
Tensions spiked again this month when Philippine and Chinese ships became locked in a standoff at the Scarborough Shoal, which is also claimed by Taiwan.
After nearly a week, both sides have refused to back down and are still keeping civilian vessels at the shoal, 230 kilometers west of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, in an effort to assert sovereignty.
In this context, Balikatan will hold extra significance in terms of sending a message to China to experts.
The Balikatan exercises, which run from tomorrow until April 27, are scheduled to be held on Luzon as well as Palawan, a narrow island that forms the country’s western-most landmass. Taipei Times