US and Philippine troops stage war games


THOUSANDS OF US and Philippine troops engaged in annual military exercises yesterday near a flotilla of islands disputed by various Asian countries, particularly China, for their strategic value and their oil and gas reserves.

Nearly 7,000 American and Philippine troops were launched from landing craft in a simulated amphibious assault to recapture an island supposedly taken by militants.

Another exercise included rappelling down from US helicopters and landing from rubber boats in a mock assault to retake an oil rig in northern Palawan, 18km off the town of El Nido in the South China Sea.

The US has a web of security alliances built up in the Asia and Pacific region during the cold war.

China has territorial disputes with practically everyone in the region about the South China Sea, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, and defence experts believe the next conflict in the region will probably relate to one or other of these issues.

Recent weeks have seen a maritime standoff between the Philippines and China in disputed sovereign seas near the Scarborough Shoal, in another part of the South China Sea, west of a former US navy base at Subic Bay.

China said the two weeks of war games will raise already heightened maritime tensions in the region and increase the risk of armed confrontation, but the Philippine armed forces leader sought to cool tensions.

“Never was China ever mentioned in our planning and execution,” Lieut Gen Juancho Sabban, commander of military forces in the western Philippines, said. The drill was meant to give an opportunity for the allies to “work together, improve our skills”.

“China should not be worried about Balikatan exercises,” he added.

Mr Sabban has jurisdiction over the disputed Spratly Islands and Reed Bank, where the Philippines is due to open oil-and-gas exploration bids tomorrow.

China’s efforts to boost its military have been intensified since Washington signalled it was increasing its interests in the Pacific, stationing marines in Australia and boosting alliances with Japan and the Philippines, and also boosting ties with old enemy Vietnam.

Last week, the official People’s Liberation Army newspaper ran an editorial saying the joint exercises “will only stir up the entire South China Sea situation towards increasing chaos, and this will inevitably have a massive impact on regional peace and stability”.