U.S. troops are in the Philippines this month for the 28th annual exercises that will include war games in the South China Sea. Close to 8,000 troops from both countries are scheduled to participate. This year's drills are scheduled to take place in three locations including Palawan, a nearly 600-kilometer-long island bordering the Sea and come amid heightened tensions between the Philippines and China over a disputed island chain.
Army spokesman Major Emmanuel Garcia says all activities will be restricted to areas clearly under Philippine sovereignty.
“These exercises will be done near shore of the Palawan group of islands," Garcia explained. "There is no way that we will conduct these kinds of military exercises on contested, or on waters that are not ours. Clearly all exercises will be done on Philippine territory."
China claims practically the entire South China Sea as its territory, based on old maps. That has put it in conflict with other countries bordering the sea, a rich fishing ground and potential source of major oil and gas reserves. China also accuses the United States of emboldening other claimants to the sea through actions such as the coming military exercise.
Numerous times in the past year, the Philippines has complained of Chinese vessels interfering with activities within Manila's exclusive economic zone, which extends for 370 kilometers from its coastline under international law. China has repeatedly insisted it was acting legally within its own waters.
That means this year’s military exercises will not be perceived as routine, according to Carl Thayer who specializes in security in Southeast Asia at the University of New South Wales. He notes the drills are always choreographed to make sure they stay out of disputed waters.
“But nonetheless they send a clear message of the Philippines building up military capability, the U.S. willing to support the Philippines and [being] a deterrent to China," Thayer noted. "That it can see a country, which in the past, was kind of a pushover militarily. It’s still a weakling, but it’s developing strength and that China’s behavior is pushing at least the Aquino administration more and more into asking for greater American, more frequent American presence."
Last month, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said the country is open to U.S. troops stopping here more often. The welcoming message comes at a time when the U.S defense agenda is shifting toward Asia.
Rommel Banlaoi says the U.S. also benefits from the partnership. Banlaoi is executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Terrorism and Violence Research.
“The Philippines is a democracy, and having a democracy ally in Asia is good for the United States in terms of democracy promotion in the world," he said. "Secondly, by having a very good relationship with the Philippines, the United States is also able to continue projecting its influence in Southeast Asia.”
Apart from the high-profile military exercise, the United States is helping the Philippines acquire affordable military hardware. In August, Manila augmented its tiny naval fleet with a previously U.S.-owned Hamilton class cutter, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, and it expects to take possession of another this year.
The Philippines has also received promises of support from U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and ranking U.S. senators who visited early this year.
“Those commitments could imply that the United States would indeed be certain to come to the Philippine defense if they get into a dust-up with the Chinese over a territorial dispute,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security.
“And while a Philippine-US alliance does indeed promise that the United States will come to the defense of the Philippines in general, it doesn’t necessarily imply that it follows in all of the gray areas and disputed areas," he added. "Especially in the maritime boundaries.”
Cronin reiterates what the U.S. has stated repeatedly, that it will remain neutral when it comes to territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Furthermore, Thayer says the Philippines will have to demonstrate that it can take responsibility for its own defense.
“The United States is looking for allies and strategic partners to carry more of the heavy lifting at a time of budget cuts. So the more Philippine ships patrol the waters and the U.S. can assist in what’s called maritime domain awareness, the more the Philippines can assert its own sovereignty, first,” he said.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Manila says China’s response to the joint military exercises is that it hopes the countries concerned can do more for peace and stability in the region.