The US and the Philippines expanded the scope of their annual military exercises this week, as China’s military build-up in the South China Sea drives Manila back into Washington’s arms.
The US and Philippines beef up war games near contested South China Sea
The “Balikatan” exercise, which started Monday, will see 5,000 Filipino troops and 3,000 American soldiers take part in mutual defense, counter-terrorism and disaster response drills in the Southeast Asian country over the next two weeks.
Live-fire combat drills and amphibious raids, which were scrapped from last year’s drills, will be part of the exercises this month, signaling a resumption in strong defense ties between US and its longstanding Asian ally.
Last week, CNBC reported that Beijing had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea: islands also claimed by Manila.
Balikatan is an annual military training exercise focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterterrorism, and other combined military operations. #BK18 #FriendsPartnersAllies https://t.co/WnSgvZ3hgy pic.twitter.com/kjl24C9ewb— U.S. Embassy in the Philippines (@usembassymanila) May 6, 2018
While the drills had seen over 10,000 troops participating under former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, they were scaled back to a 5,500-soldier humanitarian exercise last year under the pro-China President Rodrigo Duterte.
Since coming to power in June 2016, Duterte has downplayed his country’s disputes with Beijing in hopes to win Chinese investment and businesses.
But his friendliness with China is increasingly costing him popularity as Beijing steps up civil and military construction in the South China Sea, according to analysts.
“Every time China does something suspicious in the South China Sea, there are immediately negative responses from the Filipino public and media,” said Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based political analyst.
“The continuous reclamation activities by Beijing are undermining Duterte’s ability to steer the country away from the US and closer to China.”
China has in the past few years built airports, hospitals and various military facilities on man-made islands in disputed waters in the region.
Six Asian governments have competing territorial claims in the area. In 2016, an international tribunal ruled in favor of Manila by denying what China called its “historical rights” over key reefs and atolls.
Meanwhile, Duterte has pushed forward a bloody anti-drug campaign, despite criticism from the Obama administration. He also threatened to expel US troops and scrap the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.