US, Philippines Kick Off Largest-Ever Joint Military Exercise in Defence of South China Sea

The United States pledged Tuesday to defend the Philippines in the disputed South China Sea as the allies launched their biggest-ever joint exercise in the face of Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region.

About 18,000 troops are taking part in the annual exercise, called Balikatan, or “shoulder to shoulder” in Filipino, which will include a live-fire drill for the first time in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely in its entirety.

The exercises followed the conclusion of a three-day Chinese military exercise on Monday that featured targeted strikes and a blockade of self-ruled, democratic Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory.

In rare joint talks with their Philippine counterparts in Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed a deal last week to allow the US military to use an increasing number of bases in the Philippines, including Taiwan also has one included.

Blinken said that the United States “affirmed its unwavering commitment to stand with the Philippines against any intimidation or coercion, including in the South China Sea.”

The mutual defense treaty, signed in 1951 after the Philippines’ independence from Washington, “applies to armed attacks on public vessels, including our armed forces, our aircraft or our Coast Guard, anywhere in the South China Sea,” Austin said. Joint news conference.

Austin said the United States and the Philippines are planning new exercises in the South China Sea for the end of the year that will include other countries.

He said the United States is allocating more than $100 million to the bases in the current fiscal year and that the United States will provide the Philippines with new military equipment, including drones and air defense.

Asked if the Philippines was worried about China’s reaction, Acting Defense Chief Carlito Gálvez said, “We do not expect any violent reaction because this exercise is for our collective defense.”

News of the expanded base access had prompted China to accuse the United States of “endangering regional peace and stability”.

China’s ambassador to Manila, Huang Xilian, said last week that “countries in this part of the world should uphold strategic independence and resolutely oppose the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation.”

– Exercise in stressed water –

Balikatan would involve military helicopters landing on the Philippine island on the northern tip of the main island of Luzon, about 300 kilometers (180 mi) from Taiwan, and the recapture of another island by amphibious forces.

It will be the first time the exercise has been held under President Ferdinand Marcos, who has sought to strengthen ties with the United States after his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte scrapped the alliance.

“We have to really drill and rehearse how we’re going to take back an island to defend our sovereign territory,” Colonel Michael Logico, a spokesman for the Philippine exercises, told reporters after the opening ceremony at a military camp. in Manila.

About 12,200 American, 5,400 Filipino and just over 100 Australian troops will take part in the two-week Balikatan exercise – almost twice as many as last year.

The Americans will also use their Patriot missiles, considered one of the best air defense systems in the world, and the HIMARS precision rocket system, which has helped the Ukrainian military fight the Russian invaders.

Major-General Marvin Likudin of the Philippine Army said the two armies originally planned to fire live rounds into the sea from the northern province of Ilocos Norte, about 355 km off Taiwan’s southern coast, but moved it further into the South China Sea. extended.

He added that the original site was “not sufficiently prepared” to land the necessary equipment.

The new site is 300 km east of the Chinese-occupied Scarborough Shoal.

The exercise will “enhance tactics, techniques and procedures across a wide range of military operations,” said Colonel Medell Aguilar, Philippine military spokesman.

About 50 left-wing protesters held a rally outside the opening ceremony site, calling on the Philippine government to cancel the exercise.

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(This story has not been edited by News18 staff and is published from a syndicated news agency feed)