MANILA, Philippines - Six US and Philippine warships and 1,000 American and Filipino sailors and servicemen will take part in a joint naval exercise in Ayungin Shoal from June 27 to July 2, close to Panatag Shoal off the coast of Zambales, now under the de facto control of China.
Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Fabic said the US Navy ships will take part in the exercises alongside Philippine Navy and Coast Guard vessels and aircraft, Philippine Marines, and Navy and Coast Guard special operations teams.
“This was planned way back in 2010. Whatever happened since then was purely coincidental,” he said.
Fabic said the maneuvers would be held over 12,347 square kilometers of waters.
“We will focus on communications, naval surface operations, counterterrorism and maritime security,” he said.
Ensign Bernard Sabado of Naval Forces Northern Luzon Public Affairs Office said the joint naval exercises dubbed Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) will include live fire drills, maritime interdiction, ship boarding and seizure, as well as aerial surveillance.
“In-port” activities will be conducted in several areas of Northern and Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog, specifically at the former US bases in Subic Bay in Zambales and at Clark Field in Pampanga and at the Philippine Marine training base in Ternate, Cavite.
China has been imposing a three-layered naval and maritime defense around Panatag Shoal since last year, effectively driving away Filipino fishermen from getting closer to fish.
Located 124 nautical miles from mainland Zambales, Panatag Shoal has been a traditional Filipino fishing ground until last year when China illegally occupied it.
A Chinese frigate is currently imposing a 20-nautical mile security perimeter from the shoal.
Two to three maritime and surveillance ships are also positioned in the inner perimeter and have been guarding the entrance to the Panatag lagoon on a rotation basis.
The military has rotated troops on Kalayaan island, including those deployed in Ayungin Shoal, where Chinese ships have taken up positions for more than a month now.
Armed Force chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista said the re-provisioning for the troops has been carried out without any hostile action.
“Periodically, we are doing this troop rotation,” he said.
“We are also re-supplying them. Not only those deployed at Ayungin but those in other islets.”
The Palawan-based Armed Forces Western Command (Wescom) under Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero has operational jurisdiction over Kalayaan island, Pag-Asa island and nearby islets in the Spratlys.
Since last month, Chinese ships have surrounded Ayungin Shoal, about 120 nautical miles from Rizal, Palawan.