Philippines Hosts US for Military Exercise amid Chinese Missile Concerns

BenarNews staff
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180507-PH-balikatan-620.jpg Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson (center), commander of the 3rd U.S. Marine Expeditionary Forces, and Northern Luzon commander Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Salamat (left), unfurl a flag marking the joint military exercise dubbed “Balikatan 34-2018,” at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon city, Philippines, May 7, 2018.

Allies the Philippines and the United Sates began annual joint military exercises Monday even as Manila opened diplomatic channels with China over Beijing’s reported installation of missile systems in the disputed South China Sea region.

The joint maneuvers, called the Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) Exercises, are aimed at enhancing cooperation between the two allies. Up to 8,000 Filipino and American forces are participating in the exercises, which focus on traditional and non-traditional security concerns including counter-terrorism, officials said.

The two-week drills are to include an amphibious landing and live-fire exercises, as well as urban warfare drills in the north.

“Through this exercise, we hope to improve our counter-terrorism capabilities in order to build safer communities and work toward the eradication of global terror networks,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson of the U.S. Pacific Command said the drills had been scheduled “whether those missiles were there or not.”

“There are constant things developing within the region but the exercise has long been planned,” Nicholson said, adding that the activities in the war games were designed to “enhance our cooperation and military responses.”

His counterpart, Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Salamat, the Philippine exercise director, said the drills would highlight cooperation between the militaries of the two nations in breaking last year’s five-month militant siege of Marawi, in which the U.S. military helped in intelligence gathering.

“We want our forces to learn from our great and hard-earned experience in our past battles like Marawi,” Salamat said.

Forces from Australia and Japan will participate in all major training events and Great Britain has been invited to observe training for the mitigation of post-disaster suffering, the U.S. military reported.

Chinese missiles

The exercises come on the heels of reports that China installed anti-ship cruise missile and surface-to-air missile systems on three islands in the Spratlys, a group of atolls and isles in the South China Sea. The mineral-rich region is also contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque said low-key diplomatic initiatives had started, even as he said the government was confident that no harm would come to the country amid a newfound friendship between China and the Philippines.

“We have to deal now with existing realities and what the president says is that we’re trying to do the best that we can under existing circumstances. We are exploring all diplomatic options,” Roque said.

Roque said that not publicizing the Philippines’ diplomatic stand on the issue, did not mean the government was not doing anything.

His statement appears to be a move calculated at limiting damage caused by President Rodrigo Duterte, who on Friday sought to blame his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, by saying that he had failed to confront China when it started its South China Sea buildup.

But Aquino’s government actually stood up to China and took Beijing to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. That court ruled in the Philippines favor in July 2016, when Duterte was already in office.

“So Aquino filed an arbitration case. We won. He was still there,” Duterte had said from his hometown of southern Davao city on Friday. “You won, Aquino was still there. Why did you not head there and call them out?”

Duterte never imposed the ruling on China and instead sought to repair damaged ties by travelling to Beijing in his first year in office. He has said that he would revisit the tribunal decision with Beijing before his six-year term ends, and said that China had also threatened the prospect of war in case he pressed the issue.

On Monday, Roque again insisted that Duterte remained confident that China would not use the missiles on the Philippines assuming that the reports were true.

He said the government had to “verify first-hand the presence of the missile installations.”

“We still do not have verification. I had a talk with the National Security Adviser and he told me that there is a technology that we need that we still don’t have to be able to verify it for ourselves,” Roque said.

On Saturday, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said the report was of a grave concern if found to be true. He stressed that diplomatic action was taking place behind closed doors among the Philippines, China and other claimants.

“It’s not just between the Philippines and China; it’s between China and the neighbors in the region. It’s between the claimants and the non-claimants, and it’s between the claimants and the non-regional players,” he told reporters.

He said the discussions were akin to neighborly talks. Of all the claimants, only the Philippines and Brunei had been pushing demilitarization of assets in the South China Sea.

Asked to explain what diplomatic action the Philippines could take, Cayetano said it could take various forms including a note verbal or a direct telephone conversation between him and his Chinese counterpart.

“But we don’t discuss details because that’s the way diplomacy should be done,” he said.

Felipe Villamor in Manila, Karl Romano in northern Dagupan City, and Dennis Jay Santos in southern Davao City contributed to this report.


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