Philippines, US troops begin annual combat drills


American and Filipino soldiers simulate a raid during the joint US-Philippine military exercise Balikatan at the Naval Training Exercise Command in San Antonio, Zambales province, in this file photo from 2018. - PDI

MANILA: Nearly 17,000 Filipino and American troops begin a three-week joint combat training exercise in the Philippines on Monday (April 22) involving maritime drills in the South China Sea where Manila and Beijing have sparred over maritime borders.

France and Australia, which have ramped up defence ties with Manila in the face of China's aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, will join the maritime exercises to be conducted for the first time outside Philippine territorial waters.

The annual Balikatan or "shoulder-to-shoulder" drills, which will run from April 22 to May 10, come amid an escalating diplomatic row and maritime encounters between the Philippines and China including the use of water cannon and heated verbal exchanges.

Beijing's increasing pressure in the South China Sea has alarmed Manila, rival claimants to disputed martime territory, and other states operating there, including the United States which has reaffirmed its commitment to defend the Philippines against armed aggression in the South China Sea.

China claims most of the South China Sea, which is a conduit for more than US$3 trillion of annual ship-borne commerce. Beijing has criticised the joint drills, saying they aggravate tensions and undermine regional stability.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled in 2016 that Beijing's expansive claims to the sea had no basis under international law. China rejects the ruling and has built military facilities on disputed atolls to back up its claims.

During joint exercises, US troops and their Manila counterparts will simulate retaking enemy-occupied islands in the northernmost islands of the country close to Taiwan, and in western Palawan province facing the South China Sea.

The drills, which the Philippines said were not targeted against any country, will involve 16,700 troops from both sides, slightly less than last year's 17,600, which were the largest Balikatan exercises since they started in 1991.

"While we remain vigilant in the face of regional challenges, the exercise is not explicitly tied to any particular country's actions," Philippines military spokesperson Colonel Francel Margareth Padilla said on Sunday. - Reuters

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