MANILA, Philippines — The United States “will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” a ranking US Marine official said yesterday as he shrugged off China’s protest that American forces were stirring trouble in the South China Sea.
Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, commander of the Japan-based 3rd US Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), pointed this out as Beijing questioned his unit’s deployment of amphibious and assault helicopter carrier USS Wasp and F35B Lightning II fighter jets in the South China Sea for this year’s just-concluded joint Philippine-US Balikatan exercises.
“The US will fly, sail and operate everywhere international law allows. That’s it. Wish we had a longer statement for you, but that’s the simple truth,” Smith declared in a post-Balikatan media interview at Camp Aguinaldo along with Brig. Gen. Gilbert Gapay.
Gapay, for his part, said the presence of US forces and allies, including Australian troops, in the West Philippine Sea as part of the Balikatan exercises had long been planned and not intended to agitate neighboring forces, particularly China.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang on Wednesday said the presence of US and other non-regional forces could stir tension in the “already calm” South China Sea.
“I may need to check on the specific situation. I can tell you that the principled position of the Chinese side is that we hope non-regional forces will refrain from stirring up troubles in the calm South China Sea,” Lu said.
Earlier, USS Wasp was monitored close to Panatag shoal, a rich Filipino fishing ground now under the de facto control of China.
“The aircraft that I bring – F35Bs – those are my airplanes. That’s all I have. In a few years that will be the only airplanes I’ll have as the Marine Corps acquire our full complement of F35Bs,” Smith said.
He also described the deployment of USS Wasp to this year’s Balikatan joint drill as a great opportunity for participants to train “and they don’t want to waste the training opportunities.”
He added the deployment of his force in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea reflects the good relations between the US and the Philippines.
“I think the seal of the (USS) Wasp says it best: nothing says I love you better than bringing a ship with 10 F35s on it because that’s all I have on us. We brought everything we could bring because our partnership with the Philippines is so good. This is a great partnership and mutually respectful, beneficial partnership,” Smith said.
When Gapay was asked on the possibility of next year’s Balikatan being held in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), he said the country’s maritime territories as well as those covered by disputes are always part of war scenarios.
He stressed, however, that planners of these exercises are very careful about participants unintentionally straying into possible conflict areas.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Benjamin Madrigal said this year’s joint drill highlighted the importance of mutual cooperation and collaboration between two allied states and their partners.
He said that in the current complex global security environment, it is imperative for partners and allies to continue strengthening cooperation in order to expand relationships and help them deal with new challenges.
This year’s joint drill focused on territorial defense and counterterrorism operations and urban missions from the previous Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR).
“This has also bolstered the strong bonds between our countries, as we plan, work and operate side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder in our joint undertakings to continuously capacitate and empower the Armed Forces as we fulfill our respective responsibilities in maintaining peace and stability in the region,” Madrigal said in his speech at the closing ceremony of this year’s combined military drills at Camp Aguinaldo.
Madrigal also lauded defense and military observers from Canada, South Korea, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Thailand and Singapore for their participation in this year’s joint military drills.
War scenarios drawn up by both Filipino and US planners of this year’s Balikatan joint drill to include the retaking of a captured airfield in Lubang Island in Mindoro, live-fire drill at the AFP’s gunnery range at Crow Valley in Capas, Tarlac and the combined amphibious assault on perceived enemies along the shorelines of San Antonio, Zambales.
“Balikatan is a demonstration of our nation’s commitment to contribute the peace and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region in the face of evolving regional security challenges,” Defense Undersecretary Cardozo Luna said.
The Philippines, he said, continues to endeavor to expand the joint war drills through wider engagements and networking with its allies in the region.
This year, he said, contingents and observers from foreign allies are all in agreement with the Philippines in its position to maintain stability in the larger Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
Luna also said he is almost certain that the more than 7,000 Filipino and US servicemen who participated in this year’s joint war games are now imbued with strong resolve to counter terrorism and respond to the need for a stronger HADR.
“As we move forward, it is our hope that the Philippines and the US, together with our friends and allies in the region, will continue to work towards mutual peace and stability,” Luna said.
“Shoulder-to-shoulder, we will continue to stand together to defend our values, for our prosperity and for the generations to come.”