PALAWAN, PHILIPPINES – The U.S. and Japan are conducting separate military drills with the Philippines near disputed islands in the South China Sea, signaling support for the country as China builds out reclaimed reefs in the waters.
The annual CARAT Philippines joint exercise started Monday off Palawan island and will run until Friday, according to U.S. Navy spokesman Arlo Abrahamson. The Philippine Navy and the Maritime Self-Defense Force are holding drills around the same island through Saturday, the MSDF said last week.
The exercise is seen as an opportunity to display the strength of Japan’s cooperation with the Philippines, with an eye on China’s controversial land reclamation on the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
About 20 personnel belonging to an aircraft group at MSDF Kanoya Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture arrived in Puerto Princesa City, the capital of the Philippine island of Palawan in the South China Sea, on a P3-C Orion patrol aircraft on Sunday.
Personnel from the Philippine military are scheduled to to board the plane for a flight over international waters above the South China Sea starting Tuesday.
MSDF chief Adm. Tomohisa Takei, who visited the island in February during an official visit to the Philippines, said warning and surveillance activity “is not envisioned.”
At a summit in Tokyo on June 4, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to begin negotiations on an accord for the transfer of defense equipment and technology in the fields of disaster relief and maritime security, as their nations bolster security ties amid tensions over China’s reclamation work.
Although details have yet to be worked out, Japanese sources have said P3-C patrol aircraft and radar-related equipment are seen as potential export items.
The U.S., meanwhile, has backed Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines as tensions escalate with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“This year’s exercise reflects more than two decades of increasingly complex training ashore, at sea and in the air,” Abrahamson said.
The drill includes a sea phase with the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth, diving and salvage ship USNS Safeguard and a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft, and at least one Philippine frigate, according to the U.S. Navy. It’s the first time a littoral combat ship has taken part in CARAT Philippines.
Tensions in the area have risen recently with China warning planes and ships away from reefs where it is reclaiming land. The Fort Worth had an encounter last month with a Chinese ship — it was reportedly followed by a frigate — and a U.S. surveillance plane was repeatedly warned by radio to divert from its path near the reefs.
“We prefer to look at it as a strategy of regional stability and less of defense,” U.S. Rear Adm. William Merz, commander of Task Force 74, told reporters on Palawan in response to a question about how the drills may boost the Philippines’ ability to defend territory. “We have a lot of history that these types of exercises, working with our allies, tend to lead to a very stable environment.”
China will construct facilities to meet “necessary” military needs and various civilian needs, after it finishes reclamation in the near term, its Foreign Ministry said in a statement this month. The construction doesn’t target any nation and won’t affect navigation or aviation freedom, it said.
Protecting freedom of navigation in the disputed waters resonates in the region because more than $5 trillion worth of goods is shipped through the South China Sea each year. It is also home to about one/tenth of the world’s annual fishing catch.
China criticized drills involving more than 11,000 soldiers from the Philippines, U.S. and Australia near the contested islands in April. The expanded war games were inappropriate and ran counter to efforts to ease tensions, the state-run Global Times said at the time.
“The intent of CARAT is enhancing capabilities, navy-to- navy capabilities, increasing interoperability,” Rear Adm. Leopoldo Alano, commander of the Philippine Fleet, told reporters Monday on Palawan. “These can be used both in wartime missions or missions other than war.”