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MANILA: Filipino and US forces began their annual joint military drills on Monday, segments of which will, for the first time, take place outside of the Philippines’ territorial waters following a string of maritime clashes between Manila and Beijing in the disputed South China Sea.

The exercises, known as Balikatan — Tagalog for shoulder-to-shoulder — will run up until May 10 and involve over 16,000 military personnel, along with more than 250 Australian and French forces.

For the first time since the annual drills started over 30 years ago, the Philippines and the US will conduct joint naval drills beyond the 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) of the Philippines’ territorial waters, in parts of the open sea claimed by China.

“This exercise represents the essence of unity, collective responsibility, and enduring partnership between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America and other partners,” Philippines’ military chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said during the opening ceremony.

“It is not a partnership of convenience but rather a clear reflection of our shared history, unwavering commitment to democracy and respect for international law in our pursuit of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Throughout the three-week exercise, soldiers from the two militaries will operate out of a joint command center to perform four major activities with a focus on countering maritime, air, land, and cyber attacks.

“It’s the first time that we are going beyond our (12) nautical miles,” Maj. Gen. Marvin Licudine, Philippines exercise director, told reporters.

The Balikatan training operations are not directed at a particular country, he said, but are more focused on the “development of interoperability,” with an increased complexity of the drills and scenarios to let soldiers learn more from one another.

The joint exercises take place as Philippine and Chinese coast guard and other vessels have featured in a series of increasingly tense territorial face-offs since last year, including Chinese use of water cannons against a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea last month, causing damage and injuries.

After the incident, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said his government would take countermeasures against “illegal, coercive, aggressive, and dangerous attacks” by the Chinese Coast Guard.

“We seek no conflict with any nation, more so nations that purport and claim to be our friends but we will not be cowed into silence, submission, or subservience,” Marcos had said in a statement.

The Philippines and China, along with several other countries, have overlapping claims in the resource-rich waterway, where a bulk of the world’s commerce and oil transits.

Beijing has been increasing its military activity over the past few years, with the Chinese Coast Guard regularly encroaching on the Philippine part of the waters, the West Philippine Sea, despite a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague dismissing China’s expansive claims.

Don McLain Gill, an international studies lecturer at De La Salle University in Manila, said the scope of this year’s Balikatan is a “clear reflection of Manila’s commitment to exercise its sovereignty and sovereign rights within its exclusive economic zone.

“This year ’s exercise will also involve complex maritime security issues such as simulations of recovering islands from hostile forces, which add a practical dimension to collective self defense efforts by the like-minded partners,” he told Arab News.

“Clearly, securing the WPS based on international law will not bode well for China’s expansionist interests. While the Balikatan is aimed at improving joint preparedness amidst emerging challenges in the region, the challenge posed by China’s expansionism is clearly one of the critical factors that provoke regional security.”

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