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Philippines, US hold war games amid row with China

Publication Date : 17-04-2012


Philippine and US forces begin major military exercises in South China sea amid an ongoing stand-off between Philippine and Chinese vessels


Philippine and United States forces have begun nearly two weeks of major military exercises here, amid an ongoing stand-off between Philippine and Chinese vessels in the politically choppy waters of the South China Sea.

Philippine officials stress that the war games are not aimed at provoking China, and were scheduled well before the diplomatic row over Scarborough Shoal - 108 nautical miles off the main island of Luzon - erupted on April 8.

At the opening ceremony for the joint yearly exercises, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Jessie Dellosa did not specifically mention China, but said they highlighted strong US support for its weaker ally at a crucial moment.

"Given the international situation we are in... this exercise, in coordination with all those we had in the past, is timely and mutually beneficial," he said.

Asked if China should be alarmed, US Marine Lieutenant-Colonel Curtis Hill told a news conference that the exercises would not focus on any nation as an adversary.

"There is no reason for anyone to feel threatened by us coming together," he said.

Philippine and Chinese diplomats were due yesterday to continue talks in Manila to resolve the latest flare-up in the South China Sea.

"We are still steadfast in our position not to escalate the situation and to protect our sovereignty," Philippine President Benigno Aquino told a news conference.

About 4,000 US troops and some 2,000 Philippine forces are taking part in the yearly Balikatan exercises, so named after a local term for "standing shoulder to shoulder".

There are more US troops because they also carry out humanitarian work - such as building classrooms and running medical missions in remote villages - during the military exercises.

The war games are being held on Luzon and the western island of Palawan, which faces the South China Sea - and the hotly contested Spratly Islands.

While only the Philippines and China are quarrelling over Scarborough Shoal, overlapping claims for the potentially oil- and natural gas-rich Spratlys involve both parties, as well as Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The Philippines has made it clear that none of the military exercises, which will include some manoeuvres in waters facing the South China Sea, will be held in disputed areas.

As well as keeping longstanding ties between the two allies fresh, the war games - these are the 28th - help the battle-tested but poorly equipped Philippine forces improve their skills by learning from the world's most advanced military. Since 2002, a rotating force of around 600 US military specialists has been assisting the Philippine forces' counter-terrorism operations against Muslim extremists in the south.

Meanwhile, a respected Philippine senator has called on Aquino to mount a "diplomatic offensive" to muster Asean support for the Philippine position that Scarborough Shoal falls within its 200- nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

Veteran lawmaker Joker Arroyo told media that Asean had not issued "even a resolution of concern or of sympathy".

That the Philippines has not had an ambassador in Beijing for over a year now - because members of a congressional appointments panel have doubts over the suitability of Aquino's choice - appears to be bearing on the diplomatic row.

Comments by Aquino yesterday suggested that he is considering changing his nominee, Filipino-Chinese businessman Domingo Lee who has not performed well at hearings with lawmakers, speaking in faltering English and giving unclear answers to questions on the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

"Does he possess the necessary skills to be able to help us navigate these treacherous waters at this point in time?" Aquino reportedly said.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy to the Philippines urged Manila to withdraw all its vessels from the shoal, known as Huangyan Island in China, to restore peace and stability in the region, Xinhua news agency said.


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