Emmanuel Garcia, DOD:
Palawan Islands War Games Begin Amid China-Philippines Tension
April 13, 2012
U.S. troops are in the Philippines this month for the 28th annual
exercises that will include war games in the South China Sea. Close to
8,000 troops from both countries are scheduled to participate. This
year's drills are scheduled to take place in three locations including
Palawan, a nearly 600-kilometer-long island bordering the Sea and come
amid heightened tensions between the Philippines and China over a
disputed island chain.
Army spokesman Major Emmanuel Garcia says all activities will be
restricted to areas clearly under Philippine sovereignty.
“These exercises will be done near shore of the Palawan group of
islands," Garcia explained. "There is no way that we will conduct these
kinds of military exercises on contested, or on waters that are not
ours. Clearly all exercises will be done on Philippine territory."
China claims practically the entire South China Sea as its territory,
based on old maps. That has put it in conflict with other countries
bordering the sea, a rich fishing ground and potential source of major
oil and gas reserves. China also accuses the United States of
emboldening other claimants to the sea through actions such as the
coming military exercise.
Numerous times in the past year, the Philippines has complained of
Chinese vessels interfering with activities within Manila's exclusive
economic zone, which extends for 370 kilometers from its coastline under
international law. China has repeatedly insisted it was acting legally
within its own waters.
That means this year’s military exercises will not be perceived as
routine, according to Carl Thayer who specializes in security in
Southeast Asia at the University of New South Wales. He notes the drills
are always choreographed to make sure they stay out of disputed waters.
“But nonetheless they send a clear message of the Philippines building
up military capability, the U.S. willing to support the Philippines and
[being] a deterrent to China," Thayer noted. "That it can see a country,
which in the past, was kind of a pushover militarily. It’s still a
weakling, but it’s developing strength and that China’s behavior is
pushing at least the Aquino administration more and more into asking for
greater American, more frequent American presence."
Last month, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said the country is open
to U.S. troops stopping here more often. The welcoming message comes at
a time when the U.S defense agenda is shifting toward Asia.
Rommel Banlaoi says the U.S. also benefits from the partnership. Banlaoi
is executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Terrorism
and Violence Research.
“The Philippines is a democracy, and having a democracy ally in Asia is
good for the United States in terms of democracy promotion in the
world," he said. "Secondly, by having a very good relationship with the
Philippines, the United States is also able to continue projecting its
influence in Southeast Asia.”
Apart from the high-profile military exercise, the United States is
helping the Philippines acquire affordable military hardware. In August,
Manila augmented its tiny naval fleet with a previously U.S.-owned
Hamilton class cutter, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, and it expects to
take possession of another this year.
The Philippines has also received promises of support from U.S.
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and ranking U.S. senators who visited
early this year.
“Those commitments could imply that the United States would indeed be
certain to come to the Philippine defense if they get into a dust-up
with the Chinese over a territorial dispute,” said Patrick Cronin,
senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for
New American Security.
“And while a Philippine-US alliance does indeed promise that the United
States will come to the defense of the Philippines in general, it
doesn’t necessarily imply that it follows in all of the gray areas and
disputed areas," he added. "Especially in the maritime boundaries.”
reiterates what the U.S. has stated repeatedly, that it will remain
neutral when it comes to territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Furthermore, Thayer says the Philippines will have to demonstrate that
it can take responsibility for its own defense.
“The United States is looking for allies and strategic partners to carry
more of the heavy lifting at a time of budget cuts. So the more
Philippine ships patrol the waters and the U.S. can assist in what’s
called maritime domain awareness, the more the Philippines can assert
its own sovereignty, first,” he said.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Manila says China’s response to
the joint military exercises is that it hopes the countries concerned
can do more for peace and stability in the region.