In an apparent show of force, Washington deployed its massive amphibious warship USS Wasp on Thursday for an annual joint training exercise with the Philippines in the South China Sea, days after Manila protested the presence of Chinese vessels near a Filipino-claimed island.
Stealth fighter jets roared overhead and dropped bombs as amphibious assault vehicles landed on the beach in San Antonio, a town in Zambales province northwest of Manila. The exercise was part of a war game meant to sharpen skills and test inter-operability between the two longtime military allies.
The landing of amphibious vehicles marked the finale of this year’s exercise known as Balikatan, the Filipino word for “shoulder-to-shoulder,” in which around 4,000 Filipino soldiers, 50 Australian and 3,500 American troops were involved.
“Nothing says ‘you’re important’ like sending a ship with the capability of the Wasp,” Capt. Jim McGovern, commodore of the Amphibious Squadron 11, told the Stars and Stripes, a publication focused on the military, earlier this week.
Squadron 11 is composed of four warships, including the Wasp, but U.S. officials declined to disclose the number of naval personnel who took part in the drills, citing security concerns, the newspaper said.
The 844-foot ship, which typically includes a crew of about 1,000 sailors, can carry 31 aircraft. It can also launch amphibious vehicles from its deck and transport some 1,600 Marines, the report said, adding that that the ship was carrying at least 10 F-35B fighter jets and two helicopters during the exercise.
“We have a lot of capability on this ship,” McGovern said, emphasizing that the warplanes haven’t touched down at any air bases in the Philippines.
This week’s military training, which is to officially close on Friday, included live-fire drills, urban assault operations, aviation exercises and counterterrorism response training on Luzon island, as well as in Palawan, an island province southwest of Manila that also faces the South China Sea.
As part of the exercises, the American warship sailed with Philippine Navy ships BRP Ramon Alcaraz and BRP Tarlac near a disputed area in the South China Sea.
Capt. Colby Howard, commanding officer of the Wasp, said it was the first time that the ship deployed a jet to participate in joint trainings, which he said represented increased military interoperability to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region was free to navigate.
“Balikatan is a great opportunity for the Navy, Marine Corps team and our allies from the Republic of the Philippines to learn from one another, and further improve our ability to operate together,” Howard said in a statement.
Balikatan this year took place as tensions simmered between China and the Philippines, which had protested what it described as the presence of a large number of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island, which Manila occupies.
Beijing claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the maritime region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, commenting on the military drills, told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday that he hoped “non-regional forces don’t stir up troubles in the South China Sea,” according to Bloomberg.
Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte warned China to keep away from Pag-asa Island. The foreign affairs department had also issued a formal complaint against Beijing, the first since Duterte took office nearly three years ago.
“I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you that lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there. If you touch it, that’s a different story. I will tell the soldiers ‘prepare for suicide mission,’” Duterte said in a speech, using the local name for Thitu.
Duterte’s statement deviated from his previous public pronouncements about China as he forged a pro-China policy and distanced the country from Washington.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Duterte would likely discuss issues related to the South China Sea with his hosts, including Chinese leader Xi Jinping, when the Philippine leader goes to Beijing next week to attend a business conference.
“They will have to respond to our protest,” Panelo said, referring to the large number of Chinese vessels near Thitu.
Panelo noted that warm bilateral ties had led to an increase in Chinese investments and military aid, including offers of new firearms from Beijing.
He said he believed that Xi would listen to Duterte.
“We’re supposed to be friends,” he said.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Manila contributed to this report.