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Philippines, US, Japan Hold Military Drills Near S. China Sea

Philippine Navy Rear Admiral Leopoldo Alano (R) shares a light moment with U.S. Navy Rear Admiral William Merz during the opening ceremony of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2015 at navy headquarters in Puerto Princesa city, Palawan

Military exercises between the United States and the Philippines opened Monday, at the same time that the Japanese and Philippine navies started joint training. Both operations are being held on the island province of Palawan, located near the hotly contested South China Sea.

The drills with the United States involve a naval combat ship, the USS Fort Worth, and a P-3 Orion surveillance plane. The Philippine Navy says troops will train in flight surveillance and do live fire and ship search and seizure practice, among other exercises. Officials say these joint maneuvers will be in the Philippines internal waters on the eastern coast of the lengthy Palawan Island.

Philippine Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Lued Lincuna emphasized to VOA that work with Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force is “a maritime activity not a maritime exercise.” He said the work will have a strong focus on humanitarian and disaster relief as well as search and rescue help.

Lincuna said planes from each country, including the P-3C Orion surveillance craft of Japan, would fly beyond the Philippines territorial waters 22 kilometers from its coastline.

“The concept of the maritime activity is that both aircraft will take off and then go to the area -- which until now I don’t know where -- then they will have some activity there in relation to the search and rescue,” said Lincuna.

The South China Sea is on the western coast of Palawan with the contested Spratly islands situated around 300 kilometers to the northwest. China is building out artificial islands on at least seven outcroppings there. Almost all of them are also claimed by the Philippines.

Last week, the Chinese photo web portal posted a 17-picture slide show of the nearly completed Fiery Cross Reef, including military personnel striking coy poses at island markers and breakwaters, a vegetable greenhouse and a pig pen.

Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims in the resource rich sea, which bears trillions of dollars in shipping trade. Japan has its own dispute with China over a small group of islands in the East China Sea.

In recent years the Philippines, with one of the smallest military budgets in the region, has been growing its modest store of military assets and has strengthened strategic partnerships with allies while China has grown more assertive in claiming “indisputable sovereignty” over nearly the entire South China Sea.

Military officials say this year’s joint maneuvers with the Americans build on years of annual exercises and are not related to the dispute between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea. But analysts say the exercises with Japan have “symbolic” significance for Japan.

The New Patriotic Alliance Party of the Philippines has been opposed to the American military presence in the country. Its secretary general, Renato Reyes, said the country has to be “wary” about Japan’s military interest here.

“They probably plan to flex more and more of their military muscles in the coming years. We don’t want to be used as a steppingstone. We don’t want to be used as footstool for either American interventionism or Japanese militarism,” said Reyes.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino visited Japan early this month and said the two countries would begin forging a formal visiting forces agreement to have more Japanese troops rotate to the country.