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Phl, US troops to hold drills near Panatag

MANILA, Philippines - Naval forces of the Philippines and the United States are set to conduct joint exercises next week in the waters of Zambales near Panatag Shoal, an area claimed by the Philippines which Chinese ships have occupied.

“Next week’s joint naval exercises will be just 20 nautical miles from Panatag Shoal,” a senior security official who declined to be named said.

The Philippine Navy is sending the BRP Gregorio del Pilar along with smaller ships to the joint naval maneuver called Cooperation Afloat Readiness Training or CARAT. Philippine Coast Guard vessels will also join CARAT. The naval exercise is from June 27 to July 2.

The joint exercise will involve amphibious landing as well as humanitarian activities in coastal areas in Northern Luzon.

Panatag Shoal, located just 124 nautical miles off the coast of Zambales, is now under China’s de facto control. Philippine vessels temporarily abandoned the area supposedly to ease tensions with China after a botched arrest of Chinese poachers. Since the departure of Philippine forces, Chinese gunboats and surveillance vessels have been guarding the shoal round-the-clock to keep Filipino fishermen at bay.

Ahead of the CARAT launching, US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus met yesterday with defense and military officials at Camp Aguinaldo led by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, AFP chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista and Navy chief Vice Admiral Jose Luis Alano.

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The meeting reportedly focused on regional security issues and on Philippine-US defense and military relations, the defense department said. Mabus met with the Philippine officials for nearly an hour.

Mabus, accompanied by US Ambassador Harry Thomas, declined to grant media interview after the meeting.

“The representatives from the two departments discussed security issues in the Asia-Pacific region, modernization efforts and the US’s commitment to provide humanitarian assistance in times of disasters and calamities,” a statement from the Department of National Defense said.

The US embassy, meanwhile, said Mabus’ three-day visit was reflective of the importance the US holds for its strong and enduring relationship with the Philippines.

“As we rebalance to the Pacific, our alliance with the Philippines has never been more important than it is today. I look forward to exploring opportunities to work with the Philippine Armed Forces to build greater maritime capacity and increase security and stability in the region,” the US embassy quoted Mabus as describing his visit to the country.

Thomas, when asked if the maritime issue with China was discussed or if the US is ready to aid the Philippines in a confrontation with China, said he does not comment on “hypothetical” scenarios.

“We want to ensure freedom of navigation, no economic coercion and these sea lanes are open and it is important for all of us that that we need to adhere to the code of conduct,” he said.

“We discussed these things on the table. As we have said, we always stand by our treaty commitment. The question is hypothetical and I think nobody wants to go to war. We want peace,” Thomas said.

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