US-PH war games draw fire from China
THE PHILIPPINES and the United States began Monday their annual military exercises amid criticism by China’s state media that the event was an attempt by the Manila government to involve “outsiders” in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Some 5,000 US troops, 3,500 personnel of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and 80 Australians are participating in the 11-day Balikatan exercises with a low-key opening ceremony in Manila.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is to fly to the Philippines next week to observe live-firing of artillery and visit US Navy ships taking part.
“The … exercises cap Manila’s recent attempts to involve outsiders in [a] regional row,” China’s official news agency Xinhua said in a commentary.
It cited Japan, which sent a submarine on a visit to the Philippines last weekend, and Australia.
“However, a provocation so fear-mongering and untimely as such is likely to boomerang on the initiators,” Xinhua added.
“A big country with vital interests in Asia, the United States should first clarify the targets of its Pivot to Asia strategy, which so far has featured no more than unscrupulous inconsistency between fear-mongering deeds and peace-loving words.”
Vice Adm. Alexander Lopez, Balikatan 2016 exercise director for the Philippines, insisted that the military exercises were meant to improve the capability of the Philippine military and nothing else. “Just a word of caution again, this exercise is being falsely used as against a particular country. It is not, please believe us,” Lopez said at a news conference.
Lopez, who heads the Western Command in Palawan province, described the AFP as the “least capable armed force” in Southeast Asia. “The overall objective is improving the capacity of our troops, and nurturing and furthering our bilateral, friendly relations with our big brother, the US,” he said.
Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commander of US Marine Corps forces in the Pacific, told reporters in Manila the exercises would help the allies improve maritime security and maintain regional stability.
“Our alliance is strong. The United States is committed to this relationship and these are not empty words… peace in Southeast Asia depends on our cooperation,” Toolan added.
The exercises come ahead of a decision this year by a United Nations-backed tribunal on a legal challenge by Manila to China’s territorial claims.
The Philippines is also preparing to host US troops at five bases under a defense pact born out of US President Barack Obama’s plan to reassert American influence in the Pacific.
High mobility rockets
The US military brought its M143 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, a US light multiple rocket launcher mounted on a standard army medium tactical vehicle truck frame. It is seen as one of the highlights of the war games. It will be the first time that the rockets will be used in the Pacific.
This year’s exercises will also involve Australian military personnel.
Participating as observers are military officials from Japan, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, India, South Korea, and Timor-Leste.
The activities include humanitarian civic assistance projects, simulation support events, bilateral force integrations training, and interoperability operational events.
Most of the drills will be held in various military installations in Antique, Panay, Palawan, Tarlac, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, and Zambales.
Carter went to the hotly contested South China Sea when he visited a US aircraft carrier stationed in Malaysia.
Toolan said Carter himself wanted to observe the Balikatan exercises as he “realized how important the exercises were.”
“I believe that his main purpose here is to reaffirm that the relationship that we have with the Philippines is rock solid, and we’re side by side,” Toolan said.
Maj. Gen. Rodolfo Santiago, Philippine assistant exercise director for the Balikatan, said Carter would also visit the Western Command in Palawan.
“I think they want to reiterate what US President (Barack) Obama said, that the US commitment to the Philippines is ironclad. Toolan said, ‘We put our money where our mouth is.’ So maybe this is an indication of reinforcing that message,” Santiago said.
In his speech, Toolan sought to reassure his Philippine counterparts that Washington remained committed to the Philippines.
“Our commitment to defend the Philippines is ironclad. The United States will keep that commitment because allies never stand alone,” he said.
China lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea, despite partial counter-claims by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
In recent years it has built major structures including radar systems and airstrips over reclaimed reefs and outcrops, sparking international concern it could impose military controls over the entire area. With a report from AFP
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