The Philippines launched large-scale maritime drills on Wednesday with allies the United States and Japan near disputed areas in the South China Sea, military officials said Tuesday, amid heightened concern about Beijing’s military influence in the region.
Separately, naval forces from the Philippines and Australia, another ally, sailed off southern Sulu province as part of exercises meant to sharpen anti-terror cooperation just days after a British national was kidnapped in the volatile south, officials said.
This is the first time that Japan’s navy joined the Philippines-U.S. annual training activity called “Sama-Sama,” which began Monday in the western island of Palawan facing the South China Sea.
“We are strongest when we sail together,” Rear Adm. Joey Tynch, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Logistics Group Western Pacific, said in a statement.
The drills are designed “to promote regional security cooperation, maintain and strengthen maritime partnerships, and enhance maritime interoperability,” said Tynch, who oversees security cooperation for the U.S. Navy in Southeast Asia.
“We train together, so that together we can face threats to maritime security,” he said.
The exercise, according to Tynch, would consist of both shore-based and at-sea activities designed to allow participating navies to undertake complex maritime training.
The USS Montgomery has been deployed with at least three other U.S. naval ships and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter for the exercise, which would involve about 1,400 U.S. Marines and 600 of their Philippine counterparts, according to officials from both sides.
Among others, there would be lectures on maritime domain awareness, force protection, search, and seizure operations, and drills on tactics, anti-air and surface-warfare tracking, as well as vessel tracking, Tynch said.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila issued a statement that said about 100 members of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force will join the drills using amphibious assault vehicles.
“Any time we can execute realistic, combined scenarios with our partners, it goes a long to make us better and more effective together,” said Capt. Ann McCann, deputy commodore of Destroyer Squadron 7.
The exercises take place amid increased Chinese activity in the South China Sea, which it claims in whole as part of its historical domain. The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea.
Since becoming president three years ago, Duterte has shifted the Philippines’ foreign policy towards China and Russia, traditional rivals of the United States, Manila’s military ally for the past seven decades.
Duterte has said that Manila could not risk war with Beijing, despite the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated Chinese claims to territory in the contested sea. Last week, the Philippine military chief said he expects no shooting war with China over the sea dispute, saying it could be resolved diplomatically.
Joint exercise to address terror threat
In the southern city of Zamboanga, the Philippine Navy and Royal Australian Navy commenced a separate joint naval exercise through Nov. 6 to address the threat of terrorism and kidnapping in the region, regional military commander Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said.
HMAS Ararat arrived at the Ensign Majini Pier of the Naval Forces Western Mindanao on Monday, Sobejana told reporters.
“With this joint exercise, I do believe that it is a very big deterrent so that the enemies of the state will think twice of passing along the area where the joint exercise is being conducted,” he said.
The drills come almost two weeks after unidentified gunmen kidnapped British businessman Allan Arthur Hyrons, and his wife, Welma Paglinawan-Hyrons. No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, but investigators said they were looking at Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf militants as the culprits.
Sobejana said the exercises would enhance the operation capability of both navies to address terrorism.
“The tactics and techniques, procedures that are being provided by the Australian navy will significantly enhance our local navy,” he said.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.