The United States and the Philippines are to hold joint naval maneuvers in the South China Sea next week between Luzon and the Scarborough Shoal, a reef claimed by both China and Manila, the Philippine Navy said Thursday.
The exercises taking place from June 27 to July 2 by the two allies are to be held about 108 kilometers (67 miles) east of Scarborough, navy spokesman Lieutenant-Commander Gregory Fabic told AFP.
Chinese government vessels are still believed to be patrolling the waters around the shoal after a lengthy stand-off last year with the Philippines, which ended with a Filipino retreat.
“This was planned way back in 2010. Whatever happened since then was purely coincidental,” Fabic said when asked if holding the exercises there this year were a way for the Philippines to reassert its sovereignty over the shoal.
The maneuvers would be held over 12,347 square kilometres (4,767 square miles) of waters, he added.
Chinese embassy spokesmen in Manila could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Beijing claims it has sovereign rights over nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters far away from its main landmass and approaching the coasts of Southeast Asian countries.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea, and the area has for decades been regarded as a potential trigger for major military conflict in the region.
Since last month the Philippine navy has also been monitoring Chinese government vessels in the South China Sea stationed off a Filipino-controlled reef in the Spratly Islands called the Second Thomas Shoal.
Fabic said an unspecified number of US Navy ships, Marines and aircraft will take part in the exercises alongside Philippine Navy and coast guard vessels and aircraft, Filipino Marines, and navy and coastguard special operations teams.
“We will focus on communications, naval surface operations, counter-terrorism and maritime security,” he said.
“This is to increase the level of inter-operability between the Philippine Navy and the US Navy in the conduct of combined naval operations.”