Thousands of US and Philippine troops as well as Australian forces have launched war games in waters near the South China Sea, areas of which are the subject of a territorial dispute with China, amid warnings from Beijing against meddling in the row.
The 12-day annual drills, dubbed Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder), began on Monday with the participation of some 5,000 US troops, 4,000 Philippine soldiers, and 80 Australian forces.
China’s official news agency Xinhua said on Monday that, “The… exercises cap Manila’s recent attempts to involve outsiders in [a] regional row.”
“However, a provocation so fear-mongering and untimely as such is likely to boomerang on the initiators,” the Xinhua report further read.
Lieutenant-General John Toolan, the commander of US Marine Corps forces in the Pacific, told reporters in the Philippines’ capital, Manila, that the war games would help the two countries enhance maritime security and preserve 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 said.
The Philippines is preparing to host US troops in at least five military bases, including one facing disputed islands in the South China Sea, under an agreement with Washington.
While China has warned other countries against any action that could harm China’s “sovereignty” over the South China Sea, the US and the Philippines insist that the war games are not explicitly aimed at China.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, which is also claimed in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. The waters are believed to sit atop vast reserves of oil and gas.
The dispute has at times drawn in extra-territorial countries – particularly the US – which have more often than not sided with China’s rivals.
Recently, the US has increased its presence in the Asia-Pacific region through its so-called pivot strategy, which critics denounce as a provocative policy.
Beijing accuses Washington of meddling in regional issues and deliberately stirring up tensions in the South China Sea.
The US, in turn, accuses China of carrying out what it calls a land reclamation program in the South China Sea by building artificial islands in the disputed areas.