Two Japanese destroyers and one of the Philippine Navy’s newest warships began historic naval exercises in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) on Tuesday, showcasing a deepening alliance aimed at countering a rising China.
The day-long war games, the first bilateral naval exercises between the former World War II enemies, took place less than 300 kilometers from Bajo de Masinloc, a Philippine-claimed shoal better known as Scarborough Shoal but is now under Chinese control.
Philippine authorities insisted that the exercises were merely focused on building military capabilities but security analysts said they were clearly a signal to China over bitter maritime territorial disputes.
“First, they demonstrate that China’s Pacific neighbors are beginning to balance against China,” professor Michael Tkacik, a foreign policy expert at the Texas-based Stephen F. Austin State University, told Agence France-Presse.
“Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and assorted other states are threatened by China’s behavior, even as far away as India. Thus, the Philippines and Japan are jointly making an important statement about how seriously they view China’s actions,” Tkacik said.
China caused deep concern regionally in recent years as it has become more aggressive in staking its claims to the South China Sea and Japanese-claimed islands in the East China Sea.
It insists that it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam, however, have competing claims to parts of the sea, which is vital to the global shipping industry and is believed to contain huge deposits of fossil fuels.
Although the Philippine Navy declined to say exactly where Tuesday’s exercises would take place, it said the vessels would sail into the West Philippine Sea from the former US Subic Bay naval base in Zambales province.
That base is about 270 kilometers southeast of Bajo de Masinloc Shoal.
A Philippine Navy spokesman said the exercises were the first bilateral war games between the two nations.
He added that one of the main drills would see an AW 109 helicopter from the BRP Ramon Alcaraz, a frigate acquired from the United States in 2012, flying to one of the Japanese destroyers when the three vessels meet at sea.
“It would be naive for anyone to think this is just an ordinary joint exercise in the light of some assertive actions by China in the South China Sea,” Wilfrido Villacorta, an international relations lecturer at the Manila-based De La Salle University, also told Agence France-Presse.