Thousands of Philippine and U.S. soldiers began annual war games on Monday, the first under a new security pact with the United States, focusing on maritime security in the face of China's growing naval presence in the disputed South China Sea.
The joint exercises ``Balikatan'' (shoulder-to-shoulder) would test the combat readiness of the two oldest allies in this part of the world to respond to any maritime threats, including piracy and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
The 10-day, annual military exercise is being held amid increasing tensions in the disputed South China Sea.
Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario said tensions in the region had increased in recent years because of expansive maritime and territorial disputes.
“Tensions in the Asia-Pacific region have increased due to excessive and expansive maritime and territorial claims, undermining the rule of law,'' del Rosario said at the opening ceremony.
He did not mention China, but Beijing has been increasingly aggressive about asserting territorial claims on disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Pact signed last week
Washington and Manila signed a defense deal last week that gives U.S. troops more access to bases in the Philippines.
Asked about the exercises, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said all sides needed to work ``constructively'' to maintain peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region.
“`We hope that the relevant U.S.-Philippines drills can work in this direction,'' she told a daily news briefing.
The Associated Press reported on Monday that dozens of left-wing activists protested outside the military camp where the opening ceremony was held.
They said the drills and a recently signed agreement that allows a larger U.S. military presence in the country would trample the Philippine Constitution, which prohibits foreign troops except when their presence is covered by a treaty.
“Our armed forces will not modernize just because we conduct war games with U.S. forces,'' said Renato Reyes, secretary-general of leftwing group Bayan (Nation).
“Our capacity to defend our territory against China will not be improved just because there are training exercises.”
On Saturday, a navy plane dropped food and water to troops stationed on a transport ship that ran aground on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. Chinese coast guard ships have set up a blockade around the shoal.
Nearly 5,500 American and Filipino troops are taking part in the two-week drills in different parts of the main island of Luzon. The war games will see U.S. F-18 fighters rehearse bombing runs and troops involved in live fire drills.
Under a new security pact, the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, signed last week during Obama's visit, the U.S. will have wider access to local bases and construct facilities to store supplies and equipment for 10 years in exchange for increased support on maritime security and humanitarian assistance.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters.