MANILA, —Thousands of US and Filipino soldiers on Monday will launch annual war games that this year are being seen as a show of strength in the face of China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.
The 11-day Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises are expected to show how the Philippines, though severely outgunned, can counter China with the help of the United States, its longest-standing ally.
China has in recent months built massive structures including radar systems and an airstrip over reefs and outcrops in the contested South China Sea, sparking international concern.
Beijing lays claim to almost all of the waters, which are important for international shipping and believed to hold valuable mineral and energy deposits, and neighboring countries fear China could impose military controls over the entire sea.
The joint maneuvers come ahead of a decision this year by a United Nations-backed tribunal on a legal challenge by Manila to China’s territorial claims.
Adding to the tensions, the Philippines is preparing to host US troops in five bases under a defense pact born out of US President Barack Obama’s plan to reassert American influence in the Pacific.
Balikatan has evolved from counter-terrorism maneuvers against Islamic extremists like the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf, to simulations of retaking and protecting territory as disputes with Beijing have escalated.
However, Filipino and US officials insist the exercises are not explicitly aimed at China.
Balikatan spokesman Captain Celeste Frank Sayson said 55 US aircraft would take part in the drills, while the Philippines will deploy fighter jets it has recently acquired.
While no specific staging areas have been disclosed, the two allies have in recent years held war games at air bases just 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the disputed areas in the South China Sea.
Rene de Castro, an international studies professor at the De La Salle University in Manila, told Agence France-Presse the drills appeared to have China’s expansion in the South China Sea in mind.
“Looking at the features of Balikatan — the mobile missile-launchers, the fighter planes — that is an indication that the alliance is being geared for territorial defence,” he said.
Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at the De La Salle University in Manila, added that the exercises “aim to enhance interoperability among allies nations and signal their preparedness to confront China if necessary”.
The U.S. Marines and Sailors arrive in Subic Bay, Philippines aboard United States Naval Ship Millinocket in order to participate in Balikatan 2016 (BK 16) on March 30, 2016.
The U.S. Army arrived with their CH-47 Chinooks and they're ready to train with Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The US Army HIMARS light multiple rocket launcher mounted on a standard Army Medium Tactical Vehicle (MTV) for Balikatan 2016 has arrived in the Philippines in Subic Bay.