More than 17,000 Philippine and U.S. soldiers began their largest ever joint military drills on Tuesday, as ties between the long-term allies warm over shared concerns about China’s assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.
The expanded annual exercises underscore improved defence ties under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr after his predecessor scaled back drills to pursue closer ties with Beijing.
For the first time, the Philippines and the United States will hold live-fire drills at sea during the three-week event known as the ‘Balikatan’ or ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ exercises.
“The highlight of the exercise will be the combined joint littoral live-fire exercise, which aims to rehearse joint and combined tactics techniques and procedures to execute maritime strike,” Major General Marvin Licudine, Philippines exercise director, said in a speech at the opening ceremony.
China’s foreign ministry on Monday criticised the joint exercises, saying they “must not interfere in South China Sea disputes, still less harm China’s territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests and security interests.”
The long-scheduled drills got underway as China ended three days of war games around Taiwan, which included precision strikes and blockading the island, after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen met with U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles.
Beijing views Taiwan as its own territory, while the democratically governed island rejects its claims.
Major General Eric Austin, acting U.S. exercise director, said the Balikatan exercises will ensure “we are prepared to respond to real world challenges together.”
U.S.-Philippines relations have warmed considerably under President Marcos, who in February granted Washington increased access to his country’s military bases.
The countries’ defence and foreign ministers are due to meet for the first time in seven years in Washington this week.
The drills, which will be carried out in different parts of the country, will also include training in amphibious operations, aviation operations, cyber defence, urban operations, counter-terrorism and humanitarian and disaster relief.
President Marcos is expected to witness the live-fire sea drills which will involve the sinking of an old Philippines navy ship, according to a Philippine military official.