San Antonio (Philippines), .- The United States today exhibited its military muscle with the Philippines on the coasts of the South China Sea, scene of tense territorial disputes in the region after China occupied by force in 2012 several islets and atolls in those waters.
Naval training has taken place on the coasts of San Antonio (Zambales province), about 200 kilometers from Manila, which is the closest point to Scarborough atoll, invaded by China although the Arbitration Court of The Hague attributed to the Philippines its sovereignty in 2016.
“The objective of this annual training is to continue expanding our joint capabilities on the seashore and be ready for a possible crisis,” US Lt. Tori Sharpe, a spokesperson for Balikatan, told the media.
The Philippines and the US have embarked this week on the 35th edition of Balikatan (“shoulder to shoulder” in Tagalog) – a joint annual military training in Philippine territory – involving 4,000 Filipino soldiers, 3,500 Americans and 50 Australians.
Although Sharpe denied that Balikatan responds “to a particular crisis or conflict” or “addresses any particular country,” this issue has come amid growing tension in the area after about 200 Chinese fishing vessels were detected around several islands of the Spratly archipelago that correspond to Manila.
Traditionally focused on counterterrorism and humanitarian work, Balikatan has focused this year on maritime security and has developed near the hotbeds of conflict with China, such as the islands of Luzon, Palawan and Mindoro, whose coasts are bathed by the disputed waters of the Sea of South China.
“The fight against terrorism or the prevention of natural disasters are still an important part of Balikatan, although the main objective is to reinforce mutual defense, so we can not ignore maritime training,” Lieutenant Lielll Vidallon, the spokeswoman, said. of the Philippine Army.
In today’s naval exercise, 160 US Marines and 50 Filipinos emulated an invasion from the sea with eleven modern amphibious vehicles, since the Philippines will integrate four of these vehicles to its equipment for the first time this quarter.
As a novelty, the most advanced military aircraft in the world, the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, which does not need a runway to land or take off, made its debut in the Philippines in this edition of Balikatan, which started on April 1 and will end on Friday .
Although the Administration of Rodrigo Duterte has opted for a policy of non-confrontation with China in this maritime dispute, alleging the risks of embarking on a war, the Foreign Ministry presented a diplomatic protest two weeks ago.
The Philippines believes that the presence of more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels near Tithu Island, an island occupied by Manila also known as Pagasa, is “illegal” and a “clear violation of the sovereignty” of the country.
“Such actions, when they are not repudiated by the Chinese Government, are considered adopted by him,” denounced Foreign Affairs, which suspects that these fishing vessels act as maritime militias.
The Philippines, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, which circulates 30% of global trade and hosts 12% of the world’s fishing, as well as possible gas and oil fields .
In the midst of the US-China struggle to extend its influence in the Pacific and engaged in a trade war, the US is also unwilling to let its rival seize those waters, of vital geostrategic importance.
To counter Chinese domination, the US aims to locate 60% of its naval fleet in the Pacific by 2020, and for this it needs to strengthen its military alliance with the Philippines, its historic partner in Southeast Asia with which it has a Mutual Defense Treaty since 1951.
According to a lawsuit filed by the previous government of Benigno Aquino, the Arbitral Tribunal of The Hague in 2016 attributed to the Philippines the ownership of several territories in that sea, such as the Scarborough atoll or part of the Spratly archipelago.
China never acknowledged the failure and continues its military activities in the area, where it has come to build artificial islands on reefs and atolls to de facto appropriate them.
Despite criticism from public opinion – and even from members of his cabinet – President Duterte has not claimed anything, since the president has reoriented his foreign policy towards the “Asian giant” in exchange for a generous injection of investment and loans for their infrastructure projects.
Former officials of the Philippine government filed a lawsuit two weeks ago against President Xi Jinping before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity and environmental damage due to his activities in the disputed South China Sea, which affect thousands of Filipino fishermen.EFE)