The Philippine Navy joined top defense ally the United States and regional powers Japan and India in sailing across disputed areas in the South China Sea after recent drills in South Korea, officials said Thursday.
The show of force came as the Philippines remained locked in a territorial dispute with China, which has sent fishing ships into maritime territory within Manila’s exclusive economic zone.
The six military ships from the four countries sailed from Busan, South Korea, following the first phase of the ASEAN-Plus Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM-Plus) Maritime Security Field Training Exercise 2019, according to the Philippine Navy. They crossed over to Singapore, where the second phase of the drills are to be completed.
Navy spokesman Capt. Jonathan Zata said the decision to conduct maritime exercises occurred during discussions among commanders at the Busan training.
“This combined transit exercise aimed to deepen the partnership and foster mutual understanding between participant countries. As with other naval exercises, this activity is expected to validate the decades of friendship, partnership and cooperative engagement that has been long established and observed between the Philippines, US, Japan and India,” Zata said.
The United States, which has vowed to sail through the region to show freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, was excited to take part in the event, said Cmdr. Andrew Klug of the USS William P. Lawrence.
“Professional engagements with our allies, partners and friends in the region allow us the opportunity to build upon existing, strong relationships, as well as to learn from each other,” Klug said.
The trip came after China and the Philippines appeared to diplomatically settle differences in the region. Manila had warned Beijing about the presence of its ships in Philippine-claimed territory around Pag-asa Island.
China 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.
During the weeklong transit, the ships “conducted a series of training exercises and social interactions.” Transiting through the disputed region was a conduct of “freedom of safe navigation in support of rules-based international system,” the Philippine Navy said.
Capt. Roy Vincent Trinidad, who is leading the Philippine Navy delegation, said the sail validated multilateral cooperation among the four nations.
“The group sail showed the active participation of the Philippine Navy as it strengthens its relationships with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. This gives us another opportunity to learn from like-minded navies,” Trinidad said.
Last month, about 4,000 Filipino, 50 Australian and 3,500 American troops participated in Balikatan Exercise 2019, an annual joint military exercise. The amphibious warship USS Wasp, which has sailed through the South China Sea, was deployed for the exercise.