This year’s joint military exercises between the Philippines and the United States are underway with Japan’s Self-Defense forces observing for the first time and scores of Australian troops taking part in some special operations activities.
While the Philippines’ regional partners, which have been vocal about China’s activities in the South China Sea, are playing a more noticeable role, officials have emphasized the exercises are not aimed at any one country.
Not aimed at China
Philippine exercise director, Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, reiterated that message to reporters after the opening ceremony.
“But this is not. This is not. Please believe us. This is actually our purpose in coming up with this capability. The Philippines is the least capable armed forces in the region and the U.S. being a big brother is a big help here,” he said.
Lopez said Manila welcomed training with the Americans’ advanced technology.
US wants stability
U.S. Marine Lieutenant General John Toolan, who is heading U.S. forces for the drills, said Washington wants to see stability in the region, including averting a crisis in the South China Sea. He said understanding what’s going on in the sea is a critical aspect of the drills.
"We don't have as good a picture of what's going on on the seas, 24-7,” he said. “So we've made some investments in some equipment, some radars etc., but we've gotta have the capability to make sure that we've got good coverage.”
Officials from both countries said they also want to strengthen humanitarian and disaster response.
Thousands of troops
The Philippine military said about 8,500 U.S. and Philippine troops are taking part in the exercises called Balikatan, or “shoulder to shoulder.” Officials added that between 80-95 Australian troops would also participate in a special operations exercise for the first time, with eight Japanese self-defense officers observing.
Philippine assistant exercise director Major General Rodolfo Santiago said the special operations drills with Australia joining in would involve safeguarding an oil rig.He did not specify in which waters, but he confirmed they would not be in the country’s only natural gas operation in waters off the South China Sea.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the resource-rich, heavily traversed sea. China has said it has “indisputable sovereignty” over practically the entire sea. Over the past two years, it has built-out formations on artificial islands capable of docking large vessels and landing military craft.
In 2013, the Philippines filed a case with an international tribunal questioning the legality of what it calls China’s “excessive claims” in the sea. China rejects arbitration and is not participating in the case. A decision is expected in the next few months.
Japan does not have any claims in the South China Sea, but it has its own dispute with China over a chain of islands in the East China Sea and it continues to fly in airspace China has deemed an Air Defense Identification Zone.
Freedom of navigation
In recent months, Australia has been vocal about supporting the arbitration case as well as freedom of navigation excursions into disputed areas, with defense officials saying there has been an uptick in radioed warnings from China to its military craft flying over disputed formations.
Geopolitical analyst Richard Heydarian of De LaSalle University in Manila said the more visible involvement of other major powers is in anticipation of the arbitral tribunal’s decision.
Analysts anticipate a partial ruling in favor of the Philippines, and Heydarian said enforcement of the binding decision would fall on those who could best monitor the disputed sea.
“The signal to China is very clear that the rest of the region, U.S. and its allies are preparing for any contingency.And that the Philippines, the country that has the most toxic relationship with China in the region, is also getting maximum possible help and assistance from the U.S. and major allies like Australia and Japan.”
Officials said a high-mobility artillery rocket capable of firing surface to air or surface to surface munitions would be tested during the drills, with U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter expected to watch during a visit to the Philippines next week.
The joint exercises will end on April 15.