US, Philippines ramp up S. China Sea war games

Filipino marines during an amphibious landing exercise with their US counterparts. The number of troops taking part in the drills has increased by almost half from last year, to 8,000.
Filipino marines during an amphibious landing exercise with their US counterparts. The number of troops taking part in the drills has increased by almost half from last year, to 8,000.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Renewed, bulked up drills reflect improving ties between nations

SAN ANTONIO (Philippines) • US and Philippine troops stormed ashore from the disputed South China Sea yesterday for military exercises that President Rodrigo Duterte had promised to scrap, but quietly allowed to carry on.

The decades-old tradition appeared headed for the history books last year as Mr Duterte pivoted towards China - and away from long-time ally the United States.

But the number of troops taking part in the drills has increased by almost half from last year to 8,000, a return to figures seen in years past when the exercises served as a thinly veiled deterrent to a rising China.

The reason for Mr Duterte's change of heart on the two-week drills code named "Balikatan", or "Shoulder-to-Shoulder", may be down to what experts see as careful efforts by the Filipino military.

"The fact it's being done under this administration means they (Duterte's government) now have a better understanding of the security equation," said political analyst Victor Andres Manhit.

Though the bulked-up manoeuvres - including a live-fire component that was dropped last year - took place on a naval base just 180km east of the Filipino-claimed Scarborough Shoal that China has controlled since 2012, the drill's leaders barely mentioned Beijing.

"We are an island nation. That's why we need to improve our capabilities on amphibious operations," Philippine Lieutenant-General Emmanuel Salamat told reporters. "We're not concerned about Scarborough. We're concerned about what we're doing here."

China claims most of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway believed to harbour significant oil and natural gas deposits.

But their assertion was ruled illegal in 2016, after the government of Mr Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino filed a suit at an international tribunal in The Hague.

Mr Duterte has since reversed course and set the ruling aside, along with long-simmering friction over competing claims to the waters, in order to court Chinese trade and investment.

He has also cut two major annual naval exercises with the US, and last year reduced the Balikatan contingent to 5,400 American and Filipino troops.

The decision came at a low point for US-Philippine relations, when Mr Duterte hurled insults at the American ambassador to Manila and served notice that the 2017 edition would "be the last military exercise" with the United States.

Much of Mr Duterte's ire appeared to have been triggered by American criticism of his deadly anti-drug crackdown.

The renewed ramping up of the US-Philippine war games coincides with improving ties with Washington under President Donald Trump, who has said drug dealers should face the death penalty.

Analysts said Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a retired general and ex-defence attache to Washington, and other advisers had helped moderate Mr Duterte's position.

"He (Lorenzana) could handle, in a very effective way, most of the President's biases without ruffling feathers," said Mr Roilo Golez, a former national security adviser of former Philippine leader Gloria Arroyo.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2018, with the headline 'US, Philippines ramp up S. China Sea war games'. Print Edition | Subscribe