CAVITE CITY, PHILIPPINES — US troops trained their Philippine counterparts how to use surveillance drones Friday, as Manila seeks to boost military ties with Washington and counter what it perceives as a rising security threat from China.
The naval exercises are part of annual training operations between the two defense partners, but they have come under closer scrutiny this year due to simmering tensions between Manila and Beijing over rival claims to the South China Sea.
At a naval base around 13 kilometers (eight miles) southwest of the capital Manila, US Navy SEALs taught Filipino soldiers how to use small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, launching one from a boat at sea. It circled the base and landed in the water.
US maritime civil affairs officer Jeremy Eden said these were the smaller “Puma” drones used only for surveillance and not the more lethal, armed versions employed in Afghanistan.
“They (the Filipinos) are very interested and highly motivated to learn and if they acquire the systems, they will use them effectively,” Eden said.
The drones would be useful for the poorlyequipped Philippine military, which faces both internal insurgencies and potential external threats, said Lt. Jojit Fiscar, a senior coordinator of the naval exercises.
“This would be a very good instrument to use. This unmanned aerial vehicle can monitor the actual movement of the targets,” he said.
US and Philippine troops also practiced marksmanship and piloting small rubber boats that are frequently used by naval commandos.
Military officials from both sides stressed that the exercises had nothing to do with China’s claim to the South China Sea.
But Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin reiterated Friday that the Philippines was looking to give the United States greater access to its military bases, saying this was needed to respond to China’s threats.
“At this point in time, we cannot stand alone. We need allies. If we don’t do this, we will be bullied by bigger powers, and that is what is happening now: There is China, sitting on our territory,” Gazmin said.
“What are we going to do? Wait till they get into our garage?”
President Benigno Aquino’s spokeswoman, Abigail Valte, said separately that any increased US presence would comply with the Philippine constitution.
She also said China should not object. “Whatever we do within our territory... is perfectly within our rights.”
China claims nearly all of the strategically vital South China Sea, even waters close to the shores of its smaller neighbors.
Tensions between Beijing and other claimants to the sea, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, have escalated in recent years amid a series of Chinese political and military actions to assert its claims to the waters.