Philippines and US boost defense ties amid South China Sea feud


MANILA — The Philippines and the U.S. on Monday kick off two weeks of military drills in a showcase of their defense alliance amid a fresh feud between Manila and Beijing over the disputed South China Sea.

The resumption of the annual exercises comes as officials from both countries recently discussed tensions in the disputed waters. They also expressed hopes on the future of their alliance, which has been thrown into uncertainty by President Rodrigo Duterte’s efforts to move closer to China.

This year’s Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises, which were canceled last year due to the pandemic, will involve 960 U.S. and Philippine troops, a scaled-down version of previous drills to comply with health protocols.

“Though this year’s exercises are toned down because of the prevailing health crisis…the circumstances, will however, not diminish nor hamper the real intent of ‘Balikatan’ exercises, which is to foster a stronger and more robust military relationship and interoperability between our two armed forces,” Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Cirilito Sobejena said during the opening ceremonies in Camp Aguinaldo in Metropolitan Manila.

The joint war games, which will include maritime security training, come as the presence of dozens of Chinese vessels in the disputed Whitsun Reef rattled the Philippine military in recent weeks and triggered an open verbal spat between Philippines and Chinese officials.

The U.S. has backed the Philippines in the feud, saying that an armed attack on a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea would prompt a response from Washington under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

The Philippines’ Department of National Defense welcomed Washington’s guarantee and said it was keeping “all options open,” including leveraging its U.S. alliance, as Beijing rejected demands from Manila to withdraw the “maritime militia” vessels. Manila says Whitsun Reef is part of its maritime zone, while China insists the boats are fishing vessels operating in traditional fishing grounds.

In a call with Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “proposed several measures to deepen defense cooperation between the United States and the Philippines, including by enhancing situational awareness of threats in the South China Sea,” according to a readout from the Pentagon, which did not elaborate.