SAN ANTONIO, Philippines: US and Philippine troops stormed ashore from the disputed South China Sea on Wednesday for military exercises that President Rodrigo Duterte had promised to scrap, but quietly allowed to carry on.
The decades-old tradition appeared headed for the history books last year as a newly elected Duterte pivoted toward China — and away from long-time Philippine allies the US.
But the number of troops taking part in the drills has increased by a third from last year to 8,000, a return to figures seen in years past when the exercises served as a thinly veiled deterrent to a rising China.
The reason for Duterte’s change of heart on the two-week drills codenamed “Balikatan,” or “Shoulder-to-Shoulder,” may be down to what experts see as careful efforts by the Filipino military to restrain their unpredictable president.
“The fact it’s being done under this administration means they [Duterte’s government] now have a better understanding of the security equation,” political analyst Victor Andres Manhit said.
Though the bulked-up maneuvers — including a live-fire component that was dropped last year — took place on a naval base just 180 kilometers (110 miles) east of the Filipino-claimed Scarborough Shoal that China has controlled since 2012, the drill’s leaders barely mentioned Beijing.
“We are an island nation. That’s why we need to improve our capabilities on amphibious operations,” Maj. Gen. Emmanuel Salamat told reporters.
“We’re not concerned about Scarborough. We’re concerned about what we’re doing here.”
China claims most of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway believed to harbor significant oil and natural gas deposits, but this was ruled illegal in 2016 after Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino filed suit before an international maritime tribunal.
Duterte has since reversed course and set the ruling aside, along with long-simmering friction over competing claims to the waters, in order to court Chinese trade and investment.
He has also cut two major annual naval exercises with the US and last year reduced the Balikatan contingent to 5,400 US and Filipino troops.
US Marine Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Gaskell, who took part in the landing exercise Wednesday, sidestepped media questions on Duterte’s anti-US claims.
“We are welcomed here, walking in the airport, throughout your country, [but also]by the Filipino armed forces who we’ve interacted with,” he said.
“So we’re really happy to be here,” Gaskell added.
China a ‘threat’
China remains a ‘threat’ and is capable of delivering a deathblow in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), a congressman said on Wednesday.
Rep. Rufino Biazon of Muntinlupa City, vice chairman of the House Committee on National Defense and National Security, made the statement when asked if the Asian superpower could go as far as killing soldiers of other nations in the name of claiming indisputable sovereignty on the islands in the entire South China Sea.
China’s military killed at least 100 Vietnamese soldiers in a standoff in the Paracel Islands in the contested sea in 1974.
Paracel is part of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (Unclos).
In 1988, Chinese forces also killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers during a battle in Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
“I would expect them [Chinese] to do the same [moves]as what happened in the past, especially now that they have installed military facilities like missile systems [in the South China Sea]. With such military equipment in place, you can be sure that they have set up a defensive perimeter in the event that someone or some fleet comes in near them. That’s an automatic [response],” Biazon told The Manila Times in a phone interview.
“If something or someone comes near those facilities, you can expect China to challenge them, if not fire at them.
What is disheartening here is that this is happening within our EEZ. It is us who have sovereign rights there and yet we will be considered a threat if we make a move. China is the threat here,” he added.
Biazon said the Philippines must take action against China’s installation of anti-ship cruise missile and surface-to-air missile systems in the Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratlys that are all within the Philippines’ EEZ.
Response, he added, could start with a diplomatic protest or even a statement calling for China to stop its militarization of its own EEZ just like what Vietnam, also a claimant to territories in the South China Sea, did.
Vietnam had called moves of the Chinese military “a serious violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty.”
Hanoi has demanded Beijing remove military equipment from contested islands in the South China Sea.
Hanoi called the latest moves a threat to peace and asserted Vietnam’s historical and legal rights to the islands, which it calls the Truong Sa islands.
“Vietnam requests China… not to militarize [and]withdraw military equipment that were illegally deployed on structures under Vietnam’s sovereignty,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said in a statement late Tuesday.