Manila: Some 6,000 American and Filipino troops began an 11-day joint war games on Monday, underlining US President Barack Obama’s promise to extend “ironclad” defence to the Philippines in the latter’s sea territory dispute with China, sources have said.
The military training exercises are being held at seven different locations in northern and central Luzon, central Philippines, and Metro Manila’s suburban Cavite.
The May 5-16 training, in which 2,500 US troops, 3,000 Filipino soldiers, and 500 Australians are taking part, will strengthen the controversial Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg and Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin signed hours before Obama landed in Manila on April 28, American and Filipino military leaders said.
“Through the Balikatan (joint) exercises, the United States and the Philippines have learnt from each other in interoperability, peace and security in the Asia Pacific,” said Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Emanuel Bautista, adding the inclusion of the Australian Defence Force for the first time in the joint US-Philippine war games would develop military capabilities of all parties in the region.
The joint exercises demonstrate Philippine and US relationships in maritime security as they also “strengthen our capability to manage such [non-traditional] threats, and disasters,” Bautista said, referring to the assistance extended to the Philippines during times of disaster.
The joint war-games will include ship-to-shore landing exercises on the west coast facing the South China Sea in Palawan, southwestern Philippines, Bautista said.
Palawan province has jurisdiction over the eight-island chain claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea in the Spratly Archipelago, and the Second Thomas Shoal where the Philippine Navy and the Marines have deployed an outpost on-board a dilapidated and rusty old ship.
There will also be combined armed live drills in Crow Valley, a former US base, in Tarlac, central Luzon, Bautista said. He added that maritime surveillance equipment demonstrations will be conducted at the Naval Education and Training Command in San Antonio in Zambales, northern Luzon; Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, central Luzon; former US Clark Air Base in Angeles, Pampanga, central Luzon; and Marine Base in Ternate, suburban Cavite.
Training on humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and civil-military operations will be conducted in Tacloban City and Legazpi City, which were hit by Typhoon Haiyan last November; and at Palawan’s Western Command, Bautista said.
Commenting on the war-games, US Ambassador Goldberg said, the countries would stand “shoulder to shoulder ready to defend when needed.”
“We fly different flags today but we share the same common goal of peace and security and prosperity in the Southeast Asia. While we look to the past and honour the heroes who fought for our freedom, we should use the lessons they thought us to move the alliance to the 21st century,” Goldberg said in reference to the old US-Philippine alliance during World War II.
Stressing that EDCA had strengthened US-Philippine war games, Major General Emeraldo Magnaye, the Philippine Exercise Director of the joint war games said: “Signing of the EDCA would expand the rotational presence of our American allies in the Philippines and the visit of President Barack Obama highlighted the cooperation among our forces outside the Balikatan (war-games).”
For his part, Philippine foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario, the event’s guest of honour, said, “EDCA elevates to a higher plane our defence agreement and provides new momentum to our partnership (with the US). This increases a regional importance in our alliance.”
EDCA is a “cornerstone for peace and stability in the Asia Pacific,” del Rosario said.
“In recent years tensions in the Asia-Pacific region have increased due to extensive and expansive maritime and territorial claims (in the South China Sea) undermining the rule of law. Aggressive patterns of behaviour aimed at changing the status quo threaten peace and stability in the region,” he added.
China, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim the whole of the South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines claims some parts of the Spratly Archipelago, off the South China Sea, based on the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Last year, the Philippines elevated its complaint against China before a United Nations arbitration tribunal. It called for the declaration of Beijing’s territorial claim in the South China Sea as illegal.
But Beijing has called for talks among nations claiming the South China Sea.