Allies hold largest-ever military exercises as tensions with Beijing simmer
ZAMBALES, Philippines — An aerial interloper ventured into the aerial territory of San Antonio town during the bilateral war games between the United States and the Philippines here on Wednesday, an official confirmed.
The intruder detected by radar delayed the operation where the two countries practiced sinking a mock target — a decommissioned Philippine Navy corvette identified as BRP Pangasinan — 235 kilometers away from Scarborough Shoal, according to Col. Michael Logico, spokesperson of Balikatan 2023.
SAN ANTONIO, Philippines — U.S. and Philippine forces on Wednesday sank a retired navy ship near the disputed South China Sea in a drill intended to show the allies’ combat readiness in the face of an increasingly assertive China.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., wearing a military-style jacket, used binoculars to watch the drill from an observation tower along with U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson and Philippine defense officials.
During the naval exercise, weapons including a U.S. High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) rocket launcher and several combat aircraft destroyed the target — a World War II-era corvette that was decommissioned in 2021.
Marcos, who has favored expanding the U.S. military presence in the Philippines, entered the cabin of one of the rocket launchers, where he was briefed on the system’s capability before the live-fire drills began.
The exercise is part of new training in the 38th annual Balikatan — or “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Tagalog — joint military drills, which are taking place in the Philippines from April 11 to April 28. Around 17,600 troops, the most ever, are participating in the drills intended to enhance interoperability.
“The president came away with a deeper appreciation for joint and combined operations,” Balikatan 2023 spokesperson Col. Mike Logico told reporters.
The rocket firing was interrupted by a private aircraft, briefly delaying the drills. “We are not sure if it was intentional or accidental,” Logico said.
“This training increased the exercise’s realism and complexity, a key priority shared between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the U.S. military,” Lt. Gen. William Jurney, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces – Pacific, said in a news release. “Together we are strengthening our capabilities in full-spectrum military operations across all domains.”
The exercises took place 12 nautical miles off the coastal town of San Antonio in Zambales province, which also hosted the firing of surface-to-air Patriot missiles on Tuesday.
The site of the drills faces the South China Sea, where Beijing has sweeping claims, including those over areas that Manila says are part of its exclusive economic zone. In 2012, China seized Scarborough Shoal, which lies 124 nautical miles off Zambales and 472 nautical miles from China’s southern Hainan Island, after a tense standoff with the Philippines.
Since Marcos took office in June, Manila has filed over 70 diplomatic protests over China’s actions in the waters, including use of a military-grade laser by China’s coast guard against a Philippine patrol vessel in February.
Amid friction in the disputed waters, Marcos has told the military to focus on external defense and has welcomed support from Washington, marking a shift from predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who forged closer ties with Beijing.
Marcos early this month approved U.S. access to four more military bases in the country on top of five existing sites, in part for maritime security.
“We feel that it will help in making sure that there is safe passage in the South China Sea,” Marcos told Nikkei Asia in February. “We are doing all we can to protect our maritime territory.”
The Marcos administration has also agreed to finalize plans for a joint patrol with the U.S. in the South China Sea. Washington has assured Manila that an armed attack on a Philippine public aircraft or vessel would trigger a response from Washington, as per obligations under the two countries’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
Marcos will hold a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on May 1 in a trip aimed at “reaffirming the special relationship between the Philippines and the U.S.,” according to Marcos’ office.
The White House, meanwhile, said Biden will reaffirm Washington’s “ironclad commitment to the defense of the Philippines.”
China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin early this month said the drills “should not target any third party and should be conducive to regional peace and stability,” adding, “The U.S.-Philippines military cooperation must not interfere in South China Sea disputes.”
On Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited Manila for meetings with his Philippine counterpart and pledged to “work together to continue our tradition of friendship … and properly resolve our differences in the spirit of credibility, consultation and dialogue.”
Additional reporting by Ella Hermonio.
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