Chinese vessels seen near Palawan on eve of Balikatan

Evelyn Macairan, Pia Lee-Brago - The Philippine Star
Chinese vessels seen near Palawan on eve of Balikatan
A US soldier loads an Avenger surface-to-air missile system during the US-Philippines Balikatan joint military exercise at San Antonio in Zambales, north of Manila on April 25, 2023.
AFP / Jam Sta Rosa

MANILA, Philippines — Two Chinese maritime militia ships were reportedly seen some 30 nautical miles from the coastline of Palawan yesterday, a day before the Philippines and United States begin Balikatan 2024.

American maritime expert Ray Powell said the Chinese militia ships turned back in the direction of Mischief Reef after loitering outside the Philippines’ 24-nautical-mile contiguous zone.

“Very odd behavior. Perhaps intended to send a message at the beginning of the Philippines-US Balikatan exercise?” Powell wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Powell, a former US Air Force official and defense attaché, clarified that he still had “no context for what’s behind this aggression” but is not discounting the possibility that the presence of the Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea might be connected to the annual military exercise, which will run until May 10.

In an ABS-CBN interview, Powell said he believes the presence of Chinese maritime militia ships is a demonstration.

“Maybe, China figures that during Balikatan is the time to do this to make sure that the Philippines knows that when the Americans go home from their exercise, China will very much still be here,” he said.

Powell noted that there are many other things that other countries could be doing with their militaries but they chose to be here in the Philippines.

“So, it is an important message, I think, that the Philippines is not alone and that is networked together with powerful friends,” he said.

Meanwhile, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Col. Francel Margareth Padilla said yesterday that Balikatan 2024 is “distinctive as it adapts to contemporary security challenges” while not being tied to any particular country’s actions.

“Every Balikatan is increasingly complex than the last. It has evolved from the tactical to the operational level of war,” Padilla said.

“We aim to enhance interoperability, strengthen alliances and deepen regional security cooperation. Balikatan is a demonstration of combat readiness and interoperability with our treaty allies. Our focus remains on bolstering external defense capabilities and fostering peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” she added.

More than 16,000 members of the AFP and US military will train together this year. Contingents from the Australian Defence Force and, for the first time in Balikatan’s history, the French Navy will also join the exercise as participants.

Fourteen nations will participate as part of the AFP-hosted international observer program: Brunei, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

During Balikatan 2024, participants will execute a range of complex missions across domains, including maritime security, sensing and targeting, air and missile defense, dynamic missile strikes, cyber defense and information operations.

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