MANILA— The United States and the Philippines began an annual joint military exercise Friday, involving some 8,000 troops training for disaster relief operations. The drills come at a time of high tension on the Korean peninsula and continuing maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario says the United States and the Philippines continue to strengthen their ties under a mutual defense treaty.
Fresh from a trip to Washington to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, del Rosario gave the keynote message Friday during opening ceremonies for the 12-day joint exercises aimed at humanitarian assistance and disaster relief training.
“These key officials have pledged to work with us to build our own capacity to defend ourselves. And defend ourselves, we will,” del Rosario said.
Del Rosario said the exercises called “Balikatan” or “Shoulder to Shoulder” come at a crucial time for the Philippines and the region. He says what he calls “excessive and exaggerated claims” by China of having “indisputable sovereignty” over practically the entire South China Sea have placed regional peace and stability “at serious risk.”
The Philippines and China are locked in a diplomatic fight over claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines is taking the matter to international arbitration - without China’s participation. Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have partial or entire claims to the sea.
Secretary Kerry said this week that the U.S. supports the Philippines’ arbitration bid and that the disputes have to be resolved with the rule of law. He also described the Philippines as one of the U.S.’ five allies in Asia.
With North Korea’s repeated threats of missile attacks against the United States, Del Rosario later told reporters the Philippines is concerned with Pyongyang's actions.
“I think as treaty allies if there is an attack, we should help one another, which is what the alliance is all about,” he said.
In recent years, U.S. military missions in the Pacific have increased refueling and maintenance visits to the Philippines.
Military officials from both countries say the Balikatan exercises this year are heavily focused on humanitarian and disaster management. This year’s drills include 12 [American] F-18 fighter jets, among the 30 aircraft taking part in exercises in Central Luzon, located in the northern region of the Philippine archipelago.