The Philippines will start today simultaneous naval drills with its longtime ally the United States and former wartime enemy Japan amid China’s aggressive expansion in the West Philippine Sea.
Both exercises will be held in Palawan, the province nearest to the disputed Spratlys, a potentially oil- and gas-rich chain of islands, sand bars, reefs and shoals being claimed in whole or in part by the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The war games between the Philippine Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force would be held at the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa City from June 22 to 24.
It will be the third military exercise between the Philippines and Japan in the last two years.
The Philippines and Japan conducted naval exercises on Sept. 25, 2014 also in Palawan.
The two countries also held maritime exercises on May 12 in a West Philippine Sea area less than 300 kilometers from the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. Located within 124 nautical miles from the nearest point in Zambales, the shoal used to be a fishing ground of local fishermen until it was controlled by China in 2012.
Recent reports from Japanese media said Japan would deploy a P3 surveillance aircraft during the exercises.
Meanwhile, the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) between the Philippines and the US will be held until June 25.
About 600 Filipino and American sailors will join the annual activity, which seeks to improve the interoperability of the two navies.
The US will deploy a P-3C Orion reconnaissance aircraft, combat ship USS Fort Worth and rescue ship USNS Safeguard for the exercises.
The Philippines will deploy BRP Gregorio del Pilar and BRP Ramon Alcaraz, the two warships it acquired from the US Coast Guard, an AW109 helicopter and an Islander plane.
The simultaneous exercises would be held amid concerns over China’s reclamation in disputed West Philippine Sea areas, which has earned criticisms from different countries.
Officials, however, insisted that the war games have nothing to do with the territorial dispute.
“We are doing this for interoperability,” Navy spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said.
“It’s not related (to the West Philippine Sea row). Even before all these things happened, the Philippine Navy has been engaging with foreign visiting navies,” he added.
Chinese construction projects are progressing rapidly in Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi), Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Kennan (Chigua), Mabini (Johnson South), Burgos (Gaven) and Calderon (Cuarteron) Reefs, areas also being claimed by the Philippines.
The Philippines said China’s construction activities violate the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which prohibits any activity that would change the status quo in disputed areas.
China, however, maintained that it has indisputable sovereignty over the reefs where the construction activities are taking place.
The US has vowed to remain neutral on the dispute but has asked China to stop its reclamation, which it described as “out of step” with international norms.
Japan is also embroiled in a maritime dispute with China over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Early this month, President Aquino and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to start talks on a possible visiting forces agreement (VFA), a move widely perceived as an attempt to counter China’s aggressiveness.
The Philippines signed a VFA with the United States in 1998 and with Australia in 2007.