MANILA (Reuters) – Thousands of Philippine and American soldiers began annual war games on Monday near disputed waters in the South China Sea, testing the readiness of the two oldest security allies in the southeast Asian region to respond to any emergency.
The Philippines has territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea, which is said to be rich in energy deposits and carries about $5 billion in ship-borne trade every year. The Spratlys in the South China Sea are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Nearly 5,000 US and Filipino troops will participate in the 11-day annual exercise, to be held in the Philippines’ western island of Palawan, near the Spratlys, and in the northwest province of Zambales on the main island of Luzon, just 160km off Scarborough Shoal.
The joint air and marine exercises “Philippine Bilateral Exercises,” or Phiblex, will focus more closely on maritime security and territorial defence operations as China continues to step up its presence and activities in the region.
“We’re hoping to gain new techniques from the US marine corps,” Captain Reyson Talingdan, head of the public affairs of the Philippines’ 3rd Marine Brigade in Palawan, told reporters.
“If they have new doctrines, we’ll be able to learn from them.”
Two US amphibious ships, USS Peleliu and USS Germantown, are participating in the exercises. Besides simulating boat raids and beach assaults, they will feature aerial live fire, mechanised armour manoeuvres and parachute drops.
“The field training exercises will provide the Philippines and US marine units multiple opportunities to continue to improve their skills while sharing best practices and enhancing an already high level of cohesion,” the US embassy said in a statement.
The military reported Beijing continued its reclamation work in four areas in the Spratlys despite the southwest monsoon.
China has expanded its territory in the Gaven, Johnson South, Cuarteron and Chigua reefs in the Spratlys, reclaiming land to build islands to assert its claims.
The Philippines has monitored the presence of more than 120 Chinese warships and fishing boats in the Spratlys in the first half of 2014, establishing firm control over disputed areas.
China seized control of Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop north of the Spratlys, in June 2012 after a three-month standoff with the Philippines, denying Filipino fishermen access to the rich fishing ground.a