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Facing China, Philippines and U.S. take part in biggest military exercise yet

China’s foreign minister sent a stern message to Philippine President Marcos when he visited the Philippines last weekend: It was vital for Manila to “properly handle Taiwan-related and South China Sea issues” and follow through on its earlier pledge not to take sides, he said.

On Wednesday, Marcos appeared in a military jacket at the Philippines’ annual military exercises with the United States and scrutinized American rocket launchers. Later, he sat next to the American ambassador as they watched artillery units destroy a nearby target ship.

It was the first time in a decade that a Philippine president took part in these joint military exercises, and the message was unambiguous: After years of largely tolerating China’s aggressive moves to resolve a territorial dispute with the Philippines, the Philippine government is once again turning to its oldest ally, the United States.

The desire comes at a time when relations between the United States and China are at their lowest point in years. Across Asia, governments have grown increasingly anxious about these tensions, particularly over a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In Manila, concerns were heightened about what such an attack would mean for the Philippines, whose northernmost inhabited island is just 93 miles from Taiwan.

Wednesday’s sinking of the ship — the first such exercise by the Philippines — was a highlight of this year’s joint exercise called Ballykatan, or Side by Side.

For two weeks, troops have conducted training across the Philippines, including on Basco Island, which faces Bashi Channel, the waterway that separates Taiwan from the Philippines. It was the largest rally since the joint exercises began 38 years ago, involving 12,200 U.S. troops and 5,400 Filipino troops.

The new nature of the joint exercise underscores a shift within the Philippine defense establishment. For years, the military viewed its primary threat as an insider threat. Its soldiers fought communist insurgents and later terrorist groups. But it is now recalibrating its international defense strategy after Mr Marcos instructed the military in February not to “lose an inch of territory”.

Lieutenant General Romeo Brauner Jr., commander of the Philippine Army, said in an interview that the Russian attack on Ukraine was an eye-opener.

“A lot of people are saying there’s no way Russia would invade Ukraine,” he said. “Anything is possible. So we have to be prepared for that – any possible threat.”

The joint drills are another important step toward security cooperation since announcing earlier this year that the Philippines would allow U.S. forces access to four new military staging areas in the country — three facing Taiwan and one facing the South China Sea. step.

Gen. Brauner said one of his top priorities now is figuring out how to evacuate the 150,000 Filipino workers in Taiwan if war breaks out. Earlier this month, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, sparked outrage in the Philippines when he said the government should “oppose ‘Taiwan independence’ instead of adding fuel to the fire by allowing US access to military bases near the Taiwan Strait”. If it cares about Filipino workers in Taiwan.

Like several other Southeast Asian nations, the Philippines has been in a decades-long dispute with China over resource-rich islands and key fishing areas in the South China Sea. But in the Philippines, Beijing’s efforts to seize reefs and shoals have arguably become a more exciting issue than anywhere else.

Many Filipino fishermen say they are often harassed by Chinese militia boats and are no longer able to fish around the island. A 2021 poll of 1,200 Filipinos showed that nearly half thought the Philippine government was “not doing enough” on the South China Sea dispute. At the time, former President Rodrigo Duterte embraced China, saying he could not fight a battle he could not win.

“What has changed is that the Philippines has come to the conclusion that it needs the United States as the only realistic means of balancing China,” said Euan Graham, senior fellow for Indo-Pacific defense and strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The Philippines’ defense budget this year is only about US$4.2 billion, while China has very few powerful weapons.but it has acquired several brahmos long-range missiles from there Two frigates from India and South Korea are equipped with anti-ship missiles. Israel provided anti-aircraft missiles.

More weapons are likely to come. Following talks between the foreign and defense secretaries of the United States and the Philippines earlier this month, Washington said it would commit to adopting a “roadmap for security sector assistance” in the Philippines that “will guide joint defense modernization investments”. Mr Marcos will meet with President Joe Biden in Washington next week.

Collin Koh, a Southeast Asian maritime security researcher and expert, said the Philippines could “help complicate China’s defense plans in the South China Sea”. “Even weaker actors can achieve certain victories,” he said, noting how the Ukrainian military’s severe underfire over the past year has stunned and hindered Russian forces.

If the Philippines is attacked, General Brauner said his military “will initially defend unilaterally, but then we will look to our allies and partners for help.”

Although the U.S. and the Philippines are bound by a 1951 mutual defense treaty, many Philippine officials have long doubted whether the U.S. would assist the Philippines in the event of a Chinese attack. Now, they say they are more at ease, especially after repeated visits by top U.S. officials.

Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Ryan, commander of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii, said the U.S. Army held a seminar with its Filipino counterparts in Manila in late February where the Filipinos “discussed their concept of defending the Philippines” if it were attacked by China. s attack.

“They presented it to us because they wanted us to see it,” General Ryan said by phone. “And I believe that if they call us for help, they expect us to understand that too.”

General Ryan said it was an example of a major change in attitude from his Filipino counterparts. “This is an area where two years ago they weren’t open to having this level of conversation with us on this particular topic,” he said.

Most opinion polls show Filipinos are overwhelmingly pro-American, a relationship that dates back to the Philippines’ history as a US territory from 1898 to 1946. Some nationalist groups have expressed anger at the Philippines’ involvement in a geopolitical contest that it is not. their choice. But a survey by polling firm Pulse Asia late last year showed 84 percent of Filipinos believed the Marcos government should cooperate with the United States to defend the Philippines’ sovereignty in the South China Sea.

General Brauner said that when the United States had a base in the Philippines, he felt a sense of security when he saw the traces of American warplanes in the sky. But as those bases — Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base — closed in the early 1990s, “some claimants” in the South China Sea became more aggressive.

He said he invited Charles Flynn, commander of the U.S. Army in the Pacific, to Corregidor Island earlier this month, as part of a tour, and together they saw American guns supplied to the Philippines in the early 1900s. According to General Brauner’s statement, which prompted General Flynn to comment that Americans are already preparing for war 40 years from now.

“So he said: ‘This could be history repeating itself,'” Gen. Brauner said.

Jason Gutierrez and Camille Elemiah Contribution report.

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