ULUGAN BAY, Philippines – US and Filipino soldiers stormed a West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) island Wednesday in war games that took place not far from a real-life maritime standoff between Manila and Beijing.
The mock beachfront assault took place on the shore of Palawan island, facing the West Philippine Sea, where for two weeks Chinese patrol vessels have prevented the Philippines from arresting alleged poachers in the disputed waters.
Lieutenant-Colonel Rommel Abrau, operations officer of the Philippine Marines’ amphibious task force, said the exercise involving about 100 soldiers was a success.
“We simulated an assault on an island that was taken over by an armed terrorist group, retook the base, freed the hostages and neutralised the enemy,” he told AFP.
He stressed the exercise was not a veiled threat against China, which has protested US moves to boost its military presence in the region.
China has been locked in a maritime dispute with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal to the north of Palawan in another part of the West Philippine Sea.
China claims all of the sea as a historic part of its territory, even waters close to the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.
Competing claims to the strategically vital waters have long made the area one of Asia’s potential flashpoints for military conflict.
“Definitely, there is no political color here. This has long been planned and it is not directed against anyone, or any country. This is purely a training exercise meant to improve our joint capabilities,” Abrau said.
The Philippines and United States are bound by a 1951 treaty that calls on both sides to come to each other’s aid in times of external aggression or war.
And on Sunday, the commander of the US Marine forces in the Pacific, Lieutenant-Colonel Duane Thiessen said his government took the treaty very seriously.
The Philippines has complained over the past two years that China has become increasingly aggressive in staking its claim to the waters, with tensions spiking over the Scarborough Shoal standoff.
The shoal is about 230 kilometers (140 miles) from the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, while the nearest Chinese land mass is Hainan province 1,200 kilometers to the northwest, according to Philippine naval maps.