Philippines, US to hold joint war games as tensions grow in South China Sea
In this April 5, 2019 photo, US Marines with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, currently attached to 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, conduct morning accountability before dawn during Exercise Balikatan at the Navy Education Training Command, Philippines.
US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Christian Ayers, file

Philippines, US to hold joint war games as tensions grow in South China Sea

(Agence France-Presse) - April 12, 2021 - 7:45am

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine armed forces will hold joint exercises with hundreds of US soldiers over the next two weeks, its military chief said Sunday, amid growing tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea. 

The annual war games between the military allies were cancelled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

This year's event will be on a smaller scale than in previous years due to the health crisis, Philippine military chief Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana told AFP. 

About 700 US soldiers and up to 1,300 members of the Philippine military will take part — about a quarter of the usual attendance, Sobejana said.

"The exercise this year is a hybrid of virtual and physical activities," he said.

"It's a low-key exercise, just to keep the alliance — the contact — between the two armed forces."

The US embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The announcement came hours after a phone call between US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana, who last week tested positive for the coronavirus. 

They "discussed the situation in the South China Sea, and the recent massing of People's Republic of China maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef," according to a readout provided by the Pentagon. 

To deepen their defence cooperation, Austin proposed "enhancing situational awareness of threats in the South China Sea". The readout did not elaborate.

Tensions over the resource-rich sea have intensified since hundreds of Chinese vessels were detected last month at Whitsun Reef, which is in the Spratly Islands where several countries, including China and the Philippines, have rival claims.

China, which claims almost the entirety of the sea, has refused repeated appeals by the Philippines to withdraw the vessels, which Manila says unlawfully entered its exclusive economic zone.

Beijing said previously they were fishing vessels sheltering from bad weather.

The United States reminded China last week of Washington's treaty obligations to the Philippines in the event of an attack in the waters.

"An armed attack against the Philippines' armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

The resumption of joint military drills comes more than a year after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte — who has pivoted towards China since taking power in 2016 — gave notice that he planned to axe the Visiting Forces Agreement.

The plan to break the deal — central to hundreds of joint military exercises with the US every year and a major component of their nearly 70-year-old alliance — has been suspended.

But it has underscored the complicated relations between the Philippines and its former colonial master, the United States. 

Duterte's stance also raised concern that the regional balance of power could tilt in Beijing's favour.

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: May 11, 2021 - 12:00pm

A thread of major developments in the bilateral relations between the Philippines and the United States from January to December 2021. (Presidential photo/Joey Dalumpines and AFP/Angela Weiss)

May 11, 2021 - 12:00pm

The U.S. Embassy in Manila welcomes the arrival of the first batch of Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from the global COVAX facility, to which is the United States is the largest contributor.

A total of193,050 doses of U.S.-manufactured vaccine arrived yesterday, adding to the 2,030,400 doses of AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine from COVAX.

The embassy's news release notes that the U.S. is funding one in five vaccinations in the Philippines under COVAX.

"I am proud that this extraordinarily safe and effective vaccine, developed through U.S. scientific ingenuity, will protect Filipinos. As we fight the pandemic together, the United States will continue to support the Philippines’ vaccination and COVID-19 mitigation efforts,” says U.S. Embassy Chargé d’Affaires John Law.

April 9, 2021 - 10:33am

In a phone call earlier today, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and US State Secretary Antony Blinken shared concerns with the massing of Chinese maritime militia vessels in the West Philippine Sea, including Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, US State Department Ned Price says.

The two foreign ministers also reiterate their calls on China to abide by the 2016 arbitration ruling issued pursuant to the Law of the Sea Convention.

"Secretary Blinken also reaffirmed the applicability of the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty to the South China Sea," Price says.

April 8, 2021 - 7:27am

The United States reiterates its commitment to its Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines amid the continuing presence of Chinese militia ships in the West Philippine Sea.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price echoes the earlier statement of State Secretary Antony Blinken, expressing concerns on the latest development in Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef.

"As we have stated before, an armed attack against the Philippines armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty," Price tells reporters in a press briefing on Wednesday.

The transcript of this press briefing can be accessed here.

March 29, 2021 - 8:22am

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterates the position of Washington on the presence of China's maritime militia at Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea.

"We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order," Blinken tweets Monday morning (Manila time).

March 16, 2021 - 2:49pm

The United States hands over P3.7 million ($75,000) worth of underwater equipment to the Philippine National Police - Maritime Group in support of its underwater crime scene investigation program.

On Monday, representatives from the US Department of State, US Department of Defense and US Coast Guard turned over 12 sets of scuba gear, underwater evidence collection items and some related training equipment to PNP-MG director PBrig. Gen. John Mitchell Jamili.

The US has funded the PNP's underwater crime scene investigation program since 2016.

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