Philippine soldiers, left, salute in front of their national and US flags May 5 during the opening ceremony of the Philippine-US annual joint military exercises, locally known as 'Balikatan 2014,' at the military headquarters in Manila. (Ted Aljibe / Getty Images)
MANILA — Thousands of American and Philippine troops launched large annual exercises Monday after US President Barack Obama vowed “ironclad” backing for its Asian ally, locked in a tense maritime row with China.
Filipino Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the 10-day drills were necessary to deal with the challenge of “aggressive” neighbors intent on “changing the status quo.”
He did not mention China directly, but Beijing has been robust in its efforts to assert territorial claims over most of the South China Sea, putting a strain on its relationships with neighboring countries.
“In recent years tensions in the Asia-Pacific region have increased due to extensive and expansive maritime and territorial claims undermining the rule of law,” del Rosario said at the opening ceremony.
“Aggressive patterns of behavior aimed at changing the status quo threaten peace and stability in the region.”
He added that the military exercise, known as Balikatan (Shoulder to Shoulder), with its focus on “maritime capability”, boosted the Philippines’ ability to “address these challenges.”
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said her government hoped that efforts of “all parties in this region ... (were) conducive to regional peace and stability.”
State-run China Daily newspaper last week said that US has presented itself as a “security threat” to China by joining its “trouble-making allies” in ganging up against Beijing.
The Philippines on March 30 filed a formal plea asking a United Nations arbitration tribunal to declare what Manila said was Beijing’s claim to 70 percent of the South China Sea as illegal and a threat to freedom of navigation.
The seabed is believed to contain huge deposits of oil and gas and the waters straddle vital sea lanes.
Beijing has rejected UN arbitration and urged Manila to settle the dispute through bilateral talks instead.
About 2,500 US soldiers are joining 3,000 Filipino troops in the maneuvers, which began a week after President Obama assured Manila his government was committed to a 1951 mutual defense treaty.
Dozens of Australian troops, including Special Forces, are also taking part this year as the Philippines seeks to include other key allies in the region.
Looking to raise its regional defense platform, Australia will be bringing P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft to the drills to help boost Manila’s “maritime domain awareness,” said Wing Commander Nicholas Pratt of the Royal Australian Air Force.
He said the aircraft would be operating out of the western Philippine island of Palawan, fronting the disputed waters.
Meet 21st Century Challenges
Also last week, the US and the Philippines bolstered their security alliance with a new agreement giving American forces greater access to Philippine bases — part of a US rebalancing towards rising Asia.
The deal allows US forces, vessels and equipment into up to five Filipino bases over the next 10 years, the hosts said.
“The (new agreement) updates and strengthens US-Philippine defense cooperation to meet 21st century challenges,” US ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg said Monday.
Obama’s four-nation Asian tour was dominated by worsening maritime tensions between Beijing and Washington’s allies in the region, which have triggered fears of military conflict.
The Philippines, which has one of the weakest militaries in the region, has repeatedly called on the United States for help as China has increased military and diplomatic pressure to take control of the contested areas.
While Obama sought to reassure the Philippines that the United States would support its ally in the event of an attack, he did not specifically mention coming to the aid of Manila if there were a conflict over the contested South China Sea areas, as his hosts had hoped.
But he ended his trip with a warning to China against using force in territorial disputes.
The war games will feature live-fire drills, search-and-rescue operations and humanitarian response scenarios in several locations.
There will also be demonstrations of maritime surveillance systems and ship-to-shore landing exercises on the hosts’ west coast, facing the disputed waters.