US and Philippines Launch Biggest Joint Drills Yet in South China Sea


More than 17,000 troops are involved in the Balikatan drills, which follow days of military exercises around Taiwan by China

The United States and the Philippines have launched their largest combat exercises in decades in waters across the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, a move that is likely to inflame Beijing.

The annual drills by the longtime treaty allies called Balikatan – Tagalog for shoulder-to-shoulder – will run up to 28 April and involve more than 17,600 military personnel. The drills will include live-fire exercises and a boat-sinking rocket assault.

It will be the latest display of American firepower in Asia, where Washington has repeatedly warned China about its increasingly aggressive actions in the disputed sea channel and against Taiwan. It comes the day after China carried out three days of military exercises near Taiwan, launched in response to President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with US House speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The Biden administration has been strengthening an arc of alliances in the Indo-Pacific to better counter China, including in a possible confrontation over Taiwan.

That dovetails with efforts by the Philippines under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr to defend its territorial interests in the South China Sea by boosting joint military exercises with the US and allowing rotating batches of American forces to stay in more Philippine military camps under a 2014 defence pact.

About 12,200 US military personnel, 5,400 Filipino forces and 111 Australian troops are taking part in the exercises, the largest in Balikatan’s three-decade history. America’s warships, fighter jets as well as Patriot missiles, Himars rocket launchers and anti-tank Javelins, will be showcased, according to US and Philippine military officials.

“We are not provoking anybody by simply exercising,” Colonel Michael Logico, a Philippine spokesperson for Balikatan, told reporters ahead of the start of the manoeuvres.

“This is actually a form of deterrence,” Logico said. “Deterrence is when we are discouraging other parties from invading us.”

US and Filipino forces will sink a 200ft (61-metre) target vessel in Philippine territorial waters as part of the live-fire drills, Logico said, as part of a coordinated airstrike and artillery bombardment.

“We will hit it with all the weapons systems that we have, both ground, navy and air,” Logico said.

That location facing the South China Sea and across the waters from the Taiwan Strait will probably alarm China, but Philippine military officials said the manoeuvre was aimed at bolstering the country’s coastal defences and was not aimed at any country.

Washington and Beijing have been on a collision course over the long-seething territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines and four other governments, as well as Beijing’s goal of “reunification” of Taiwan, by force if necessary.

China last week warned against an intensifying US military deployment to the region. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in a regular news briefing in Beijing that it “would only lead to more tensions and less peace and stability in the region”.

On Monday, the US 7th Fleet deployed guided-missile destroyer USS Milius within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, a Manila-claimed coral outcrop that China seized in the mid-1990s and turned into one of seven missile-protected island bases in the South China Sea’s hotly contested Spratlys archipelago. The US military has been undertaking such “freedom of navigation” operations for years to challenge China’s expansive territorial claims in the busy seaway.

“As long as some countries continue to claim and assert limits on rights that exceed their authority under international law, the United States will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the sea guaranteed to all,” the 7th Fleet said. “No member of the international community should be intimidated or coerced into giving up their rights and freedoms.”

Source: The Guardian