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US, Philippines kick off combat drills in South China Sea

April 22, 2024

The joint drills include simulations of US and Filipino troops recapturing islands as Manila and Beijing contest maritime territory in the South China Sea.

A file image from the 2023 Balikatan military exercises
Nearly 17,000 soldiers from both the countries will take part in this annual drillImage: Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Some 16,700 Filipino and US troops began annual joint military exercises in the Philippines on Monday, amid tensions with China over Beijing's growing assertiveness in the region.

The exercises, dubbed Balikatan, or "shoulder to shoulder," include testing weaponry and equipment.

This year, the drills also include the mock retaking of "occupied" islands in the South China Sea.

In recent months, China and the Philippines have been at odds over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, with Chinese coast guard vessels frequently harassing Philippine boats with water cannons. 

US and Filipino generals at the opening ceremony of the 2024 Balikatan exercise
The joint drill wil be conducted from April 22 to May 10Image: Jam Sta Rosa/AFP/Getty Images

What is the Balikatan exercise?

Lieutenant General William Jurney, the US Marine Corps Pacific commander, said at an opening ceremony in Manila the drills are going to "show the people of the Philippines" that the US and Filipino military cooperation has gotten "better."

"When we get better the Philippines gets stronger, safer and more secure," he said. 

Ahead of the drills, Philippine Colonel Michael Logico told reporters "The purpose of armed forces, why we exist, is really to prepare for war."

"There's no sugarcoating it... for us not to prepare, that's a disservice to the country," he said.

For the first time, the annual event will also involve troops from the Australian and French military. Fourteen other countries in Asia and Europe will attend as observers. The exercises will run until May 10. 

The 2024 exercises are also the first to take place outside of Philippine territorial waters. 

"Some of the exercises will take place in the South China Sea in an area outside of the Philippines' territorial sea. It's a direct challenge to China's expansive claims" in the region, Philippine political analyst Richard Heydarian told DW.

He added that some of the exercises this year will also be close to Taiwan.

This year's exercises have a "dual orientation pushing against China's aggressive intentions both in the South China Sea but also in Taiwan," he added.

US support for Philippines 

The US is a treaty ally of the Philippines and serves as a guarantor of its security in case of a potential conflict in the South China Sea.

The US has been bolstering its alliances with countries in the Asia-Pacific region in response to China's growing military ambitions. 

President Joe Biden has on numerous occasions reiterated the US' "ironclad" support to the archipelago nation.

Earlier in April, President Biden pledged to defend the Philippines from any attack in the disputed maritime territory, as he hosted the first joint summit with Manila and Tokyo.

Washington and Manila are treaty allies and have deepened their defense cooperation since Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office in 2022.

Beijing has criticized the joint drills, saying they aggravate tensions and undermine regional stability.

US Marine Corps commander Jurney said that the exercises operate "based on international order and international law" and are 
"well within" sovereign rights and responsibilities of the Philippines. 

Biden pledges to defend US Pacific allies at historic summit

mk/wmr (AFP, Reuters)