MANILA, Philippines—Amid the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and reports they could be spying in Tubbataha Reef, Chinese military officials on Monday joined an 11-nation roundtable in Quezon City on disaster response.
The daylong closed-door activity at Camp Aguinaldo, the main Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) base, was part of the joint military exercise going on between United States and Philippine forces, said Maj. Emmanuel Garcia, spokesman of the Balikatan exercises.
“This is a good development since several countries joined the activity. We are happy China is here (to) participate so we could have more discussions on how to appropriately address disasters, especially maritime incidents,” Garcia told reporters. A Chinese boat is currently stranded in the Tubbataha Reef near Palawan ostensibly after it got lost while on a fishing trip.
Garcia said the AFP suggested to its US counterpart the holding of a discussion on humanitarian assistance and disaster response after the Philippines was ravaged by Typhoon “Pablo” last year.
“We need cooperation and coordination with other countries because maritime disasters happen in international waters,” he said.
Aside from Filipino, American and Chinese military officials, ranking security officers from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam also attended the meeting.
Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner, of the AFP operations office, said it was the first time the Balikatan joint military exercise with the US involved other countries in one of its activities.
“This is very significant because… we are looking (at the possibility of) opening up Balikatan to other countries as well. We’re now planning for a similar activity (in the future),” he said.
Asked if the activity could help strengthen ties between China and the Philippines despite their territorial conflict in the West Philippine Sea, Brawner said: “Yes, definitely. It will help in the building of confidence and building up relationships among countries in the region.”
“We all know that when it comes to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, there is no such thing as differences because what we want to uphold here is the preservation of the environment and the lives of people,” Brawner said.
At the meeting, Garcia said the participants shared their experiences and best practices in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (HADR) in their respective countries.
Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr., AFP spokesman, said the meeting was also aimed at “testing and validating the Philippine-US military HADR Concept of Operations in a multinational and multiorganizational exercise.”
“Aside from the roundtable discussion, around 8,000 members of the Philippine and US armed forces are also conducting joint civil military projects and combined staff exercises and field training in Central Luzon,” Burgos said.