Nearly 17,000 Filipino and American troops kicked off a three-week joint combat training exercise in the Philippines on Monday that includes maritime drills in the South China Sea where Manila and Beijing have sparred over territorial claims.

France and Australia, which have ramped up defense ties with Manila in the face of China's aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, will join the maritime exercises.

For the first time since the annual Balikatan or "shoulder-to-shoulder" drills started in 1991, the allies will sail outside the 12 nautical miles of the Philippines’ baseline off the western Palawan province, which faces the South China Sea.