China: Keep ‘Balikatan’ drills off our ‘interests’ in SCS
As the largest-ever military exercises between the Philippines and the United States got under way, China on Wednesday said these activities should not interfere in its “interests” in the South China Sea (SCS), over which Beijing makes sweeping claims of sovereignty.
“Exchange and cooperation between relevant countries should not target any third party and should be conducive to regional peace and stability,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a press briefing in Beijing.
“The US-Philippines military cooperation must not interfere in South China Sea disputes, still less harm China’s territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests and security interests,” Wang said, referring to the “Balikatan” exercises, whose 38th edition kicked off on Tuesday with about 17,000 Filipino and American troops—plus an Australian contingent—taking part in drills focusing on the country’s maritime defense.
This year’s war games will run up to April 28.
The exercises, the most anticipated and internationally monitored in years, began amid rising tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan. They immediately followed the conclusion of a three-day Chinese military exercise that simulated strikes and a blockade of Taiwan, which Beijing claims to be part of its territory.
The Chinese foreign ministry last week warned that the Philippines might be drawn into a “whirlpool of potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait,” after Manila allowed US forces to base troops and equipment in four additional sites in the Philippines under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), one of which is located in the northern tip of Luzon close to Taiwan.
Also on Wednesday, the Philippine and US defense ministers said they had started discussing the possibility of their respective navies conducting a “joint sail” in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) as part of the ongoing Balikatan.
The WPS refers to the maritime areas on the western side of the Philippine archipelago (or the eastern side of the SCS), which also includes the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Acting Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. and US Defense Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III spoke of the plan during their “2+2” meeting in Washington, according to a Pentagon statement.
Military sources familiar with the plan told the Inquirer that the details were being finalized for the joint sail, which will involve several Philippine and US navy vessels sailing in formation and assembling for a photo exercise as they head to the exercise area.
In the meeting, the Philippines and the United States also discussed plans to hold “combined maritime activities” in the SCS with Japan and Australia later this year “as we work to enhance our collective deterrence,” Austin said in a press conference.
Galvez and Austin earlier agreed to go on joint patrols in the WPS during the latter’s visit to Manila in February.
In a joint statement, the top foreign affairs and defense officials from both countries expressed strong objections to what they considered “unlawful maritime claims, militarization of reclaimed features, and threatening and provocative activities” in the WPS, including China’s continued deployment of maritime militia vessels and disruption of the lawful Philippine activities in its EEZ.
They also called on China to comply with the “final and legally binding” 2016 Award on the South China Sea and expressed concern over recent reports of covert land reclamation of unoccupied features in the Spratly Islands.
MDT covers coast guard
The US officials also reaffirmed Washington’s commitment under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which binds the two allies to come to each other’s aid in the event of an armed attack by an external force in the South China Sea.
They explicitly cited the coast guard as among the entities covered by the treaty.
“As Secretary Blinken and I have said clearly and repeatedly, the Mutual Defense Treaty applies to armed attacks on either of our armed forces, our aircraft, or public vessels—including our coast guard—anywhere in the South China Sea,” Austin said.
Chinese coast guard vessels have repeatedly harassed Filipino fishermen and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and Philippine Navy patrol teams in the West Philippine Sea. In February, the Philippines accused China of pointing a “military grade” laser at a PCG ship then escorting a resupply mission to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, temporarily blinding some of the Filipino crew members.
President Marcos said at the time that the laser attack was not enough to invoke the MDT.