Bangkok, Apr 12 (EFE).- The Philippines and the United States began a joint two-week military training Monday, amid the escalation of tensions with Beijing in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The “Balikatan,” as it is known, was suspended last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and resumed this year in the Philippines.
“This year’s Balikatan will be held under strict health protocols due to the Covid-19 crisis. Among the necessary adjustments, we have reduced the number of participants with 736 military personnel from the Philippines and 225 participants from the US,” Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, head of the Philippine Armed Forces, said to mark the beginning of the drills.
This year’s training will focus on air exercises, maritime security and humanitarian assistance to civilians in the event of a natural disaster, to avoid training that requires hand-to-hand contact.
The decision to proceed with Balikatan was announced after US and Philippine Defense Secretaries Delfin Lorenzana and Lloyd Austin held a call to discuss the drills and threats to regional security in the aftermath of the latest developments in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has made several diplomatic protests in recent weeks over the presence of Chinese ships within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone around the Whitsun Reef, a strategic route, and unsuccessfully demanded the withdrawal of what it considers a China’s “maritime militia.”
Beijing, which claims the reef, says those are fishing boats that took refuge there because of the rough seas.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei claim parts of this strategic sea – through which 30 percent of global trade circulates and is home to 12 percent of the world’s fishing grounds, in addition to oil and gas deposits. China and Taiwan claim the sovereignty of those waters almost entirely.
The Philippines is the only country that has a ruling supporting its claims, with The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration granting it ownership of several territories of the South China Sea, Scarborough Atoll and part of the Spratly archipelago. China has built military bases and artificial islands atop atolls and reefs to retain control.
China, which appeals to historical rights over the area, never recognized the court’s ruling and continues its military and fishing activities within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines and the rest of the disputed countries. The US is following this expansion with suspicion, as both powers try to control the Pacific Sea.
Sunday’s call between Lorenzana and Austin also served to reaffirm the two countries’ commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty – which dates back to 1951. It also highlighted the importance of the Troop Visit Agreement, which Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, suspended for a few months in retaliation for the withdrawal of the US visa to a political ally.
That agreement – suspended between February and June 2020 – provides the legal framework so that US troops can regularly go to the Philippines to carry out joint military exercises such as Balikatan, an activity that has been carried out annually since 1984. EFE