US and Philippine troops began major exercises on Monday as China’s state media warned “outsiders” against interfering in tense West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) territorial disputes.
The official Xinhua news agency gave the warning as Manila and Washington launched the 11-day Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) exercises with a low-key opening ceremony in Manila.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter is to fly to the Philippines next week to observe live-firing of artillery and visit US Navy ships taking part.
Some 5,000 US troops are taking part along with nearly 4,000 Philippine soldiers and 80 from Australia.
“The . . . exercises cap Manila’s recent attempts to involve outsiders in [a]regional row,” China’s official news agency Xinhua said in a commentary.
It cited Japan, which sent a submarine on a visit to the Philippines last weekend, and Australia.
“However, a provocation so fear-mongering and untimely as such is likely to boomerang on the initiators,” Xinhua said.
“A big country with vital interests in Asia, the United States should first clarify the targets of its Pivot to Asia strategy, which so far has featured no more than unscrupulous inconsistency between fear-mongering deeds and peace-loving words.”
China lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea, despite partial counter-claims by Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
In recent years, it built major structures including radar systems and airstrips over reclaimed reefs and outcrops, sparking international concern it could impose military controls over the entire area.
The US does not take sides in the territorial disputes but has asserted the importance of keeping sea and air routes open.
It has sent US bombers and warships on patrol close to the Chinese construction activity in recent months, infuriating Beijing.
Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commander of US Marine Corps forces in the Pacific, said the exercises will help the allies improve maritime security and maintain regional stability.
For the first time, missile destroyers like the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), a light multiple rocket launcher mounted on a standard Army Medium Tactical Vehicle (MTV) truck frame, will be used during the live fire exercises in Crow Valley, Tarlac, north of Manila.
Toolan said the main purpose of Carter’s visit is to reaffirm that the relationship of the US with the Philippines is “rock solid and we’re side by side.”
The US military official underscored the importance of a good territorial defense.
“This view of Philippine self-sufficiency and self-reliance is real and we are here to showcase that. We have made significant progress. And as President [Barack] Obama said recently in the Philippines, our commitment to defend the Philippines is iron-clad. The US will keep that commitment because allies never stand alone,” Toolan said in his speech during the opening ceremony.
“Our alliance is strong. The United States is committed to this relationship and these are not empty words. These are, in American expression, putting our money where our mouth is. We have over 5,000 US Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen here which represent this substantial commitment of the Pacific Command,” he added.
But officials were quick to clarify that the drill is not against a particular country like China where the Philippines has a standing territorial dispute over the West Philippines Sea.
“Again, the overall objective is capacitating our troops, keeping up with a good capability development and nurturing and furthering our bilateral relations, friendly relations with our big brother in United States,” said Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Command and the Philippines’ Balikatan Exercises director.
The exercises come ahead of a decision this year by a United Nations-backed tribunal on a legal challenge by Manila to China’s territorial claims.
The Philippines is also preparing to host US troops at five bases under a defense pact born out of US President Barack Obama’s plan to reassert American influence in the Pacific.