BEIJING, -- The US is increasing its military presence in the South China Sea and sending the wrong signal to the region by involving Japan and Australia in previously bilateral US-Philippine exercises, analysts said.
Some 5,000 US troops are taking part along with nearly 4,000 Philippine soldiers and 80 from Australia during the 12-day annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises, which began on Monday.
Two Japanese destroyers, the Ariake and Setogiri, and submarine Oyashio, arrived at Subic Bay near the disputed waters on Sunday to "observe" the Balikatan exercises, Japanese media reported.
The drills have evolved from counter-terrorism maneuvers to include an amphibious landing exercise to simulate the taking of a disputed island. The Philippine military will also send the US High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), designed to shoot down aircraft, to Palawan Island in the South China Sea during the war games.
Meanwhile, US defense Secretary Ashton Carter will fly to the Philippines next week to observe how HIMARS works and visit US Navy ships taking part in the drill. Carter will be the first top US defense official to observe the US-Philippine maneuvers.
"It's clear that the maneuvers this year are eyeing China," Wu Shicun, president of China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies told the Global Times. "Instead of a bilateral alliance, the US is trying to involve Australia and Japan to build a trilateral or quadrilateral military alliance to counter China."
Seize the moment
The drills come two weeks after the Philippines allowed the US to have military access to five bases near the disputed waters in the South China Sea under the renewed defense pact, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Analysts believe the US is trying to seize the moment and consolidate its ties with the Philippines before the Aquino administration ends in June and the Obama administration in January.
"The US has strong military alliances in Northeast Asia but its military ties in Southeast Asia were deemed as underperforming. Through EDCA, the US is actively seeking to boost its military presence in Southeast Asia, sending the wrong signal to the region that the US will use military means to resolve South China Sea disputes and that the country supports the claimant nations to contain China," Wu said.
Xue Li, a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the new Philippine president may slow military cooperation with the US which has grown to an unprecedented level since the withdrawal of US forces from the Philippines more than 20 years ago.
"But the new US president is likely to continue the 'rebalance toward Asia' strategy and have a tougher stance than Obama," Xue said.
The joint maneuvers also come ahead of a decision this year by a UN-backed tribunal on a legal challenge by Manila to Beijing's territorial claims. China previously said it will neither accept nor participate in the arbitration process unilaterally initiated by the Philippines.
"This year could be especially tough for China in terms of the maritime disputes. The US is clearly pulling strings behind the arbitration case and is encouraging other nations in the area in an orchestrated move to exert pressure on China as the tribunal readies to announce its decision. China should prepare itself for what is to come," Wu warned.
The Japan Times reported on Sunday that the three Japanese warships arrived in the Philippines early Sunday on a "goodwill visit," which "coincides" with the Balikatan exercises.
Japan is also discussing with the Philippines about participating in such joint military drills on a regular basis, the newspaper reported.
Analysts said Japan may want to use the South China Sea as a bargaining chip to gain more advantage in the disputes in the Diaoyu Islands.
Lian Degui, deputy director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies told the Global Times that Japan's intervention in the South China Sea may be due to strategies to undercut China's influence with ASEAN nations.
"Both Japan and the US are outsiders and have no reason to interfere in the maritime disputes … Japan's actions will eventually affect long-term relations between China and Japan, which are already faltering at the moment," Lian said.
The Philippines' joint maneuvers were criticized by some of its domestic groups. The League of Filipino Students Chairperson Charisse Bañez said "Balikatan 2016 is the worst joint exercises in history. It has opened the country's territories not only to the US but also to other foreign countries" as it invited Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, India, and Timor-Leste to observe some of the activities.
The USNS Lummus offloads her cargo to kick off US-Philippines Balikatan Exercise 2016.