SAN ANTONIO, Philippines – The United States exhibited on Thursday its maritime military might in an ongoing annual defense drill with the Philippines near the disputed South China Sea where China has been expanding its claims after occupying several islets and atolls in the region in 2012.
The Balikatan 2019 naval drill, which began on April 1 and will conclude on Friday, were carried out in the coasts of San Antonio (Zambales province), located around 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Manila.
This is the closest point to Scarborough atoll, which is under the Chinese control even though the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016 ruled in favor of the Philippines in their sovereignty dispute.
Balikatan spokesperson Second Lt. Tori Sharpe of the US told the media that the aim of these annual drills was to continue to increase practices and showcase interoperability for any possible crisis.
The 35th edition of Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder in Tagalog) saw participation of 4,000 Philippine soldiers as well as 3,500 American and 50 Australian troops.
Sharpe denied that Balikatan responded to any particular crisis or was directed at any particular country.
But the exercise this year took place amid a growing tension in the area after some 200 Chinese fishing boats were detected near several islands controlled by the Philippines in the disputed Spratly archipelago.
Traditionally focused on counter-terrorism and humanitarian response, the latest edition of Balikatan focused on maritime security and was conducted near the points of conflict with China, such as the islands of Luzon, Palawan and Mindoro – whose coasts lie on the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The fight against terrorism and military response to natural disasters remain integral parts of Balikatan, although the main aim remains strengthening mutual defense, which is why drills at sea cannot be disregarded, said Lt. Liezld Vidallon, a spokesperson of the Philippine army.
Among the notable features of this year’s exercise are the most advanced fighter jets of the US, Lockheed Martin’s F-35B Lightning II aircraft coupled with the USS Wasp, a US Navy multipurpose amphibious assault ship. The aircraft does not need a runway to takeoff or land.
On Thursday, 160 US and 50 Philippine troops simulated an invasion from the sea and mocked a fight using 11 amphibious vehicles. The Philippines is all set to incorporate four of these vehicles in its naval fleet in the coming months.
The Philippine government led by President Rodrigo Duterte has opted against confrontation with China in the maritime dispute, pointing to the risks of escalating into a war.
But the foreign affairs department lodged a diplomatic protest two weeks ago with Beijing as the Philippines considered the presence of over 200 Chinese fishing boats near Tithu island – under Manila’s control and known as Pagasa – as illegal and a clear violation of its sovereignty.
The foreign affairs department considered these actions, when not repudiated by the Chinese government, as being endorsed by it, and suspects that the fishing boats acted as sea militia.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan dispute the sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea – an area believed to be rich in natural and marine resources and through which 30 percent of the world’s trade passes.
The US and China, which are also engaged in a trade war between them, both compete to extend influence over the Pacific.
As such, Washington has been trying to check Beijing’s attempt to extend control over the waters of the geo-strategically vital South China Sea, which of vital.
To counter Chinese dominance, the US seeks to place 60 percent of its naval fleet in the Pacific by 2020, for which it needs to reinforce its military alliance with the Philippines – its historic ally in Southeast Asia with whom it has a Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1951.
The earlier government in Manila under Benigno Aquino took the territorial dispute with China to The Hague court, which in 2016 ruled in favor of the Philippines, recognizing its sovereignty over several territories in the region, including Scarborough atoll and a section of the Spratly archipelago.
China never recognized the verdict and has continued its military activities in the region, where it has even built artificial islands on reefs and atolls to appropriate them de facto.
Duterte, despite criticism from the public and even from members of his own cabinet, did not take any action, but instead reoriented his foreign policy towards China in exchange for huge investments and loans for infrastructure projects.
Two weeks ago, former Philippine government officials filed a complaint against Chinese President Xi Jinping before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and environmental damage in the South China Sea, which affects thousands of fishermen in the Philippines.