This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Filipino and U.S. Marines kicked off large-scale joint drills Monday in and around Philippine islands facing the South China Sea and in Japan, with Japanese and South Korean military personnel participating as observers for the first time, officials said.
The Kamandag 6 war games, which involve about 2,550 U.S. Marines and 630 Filipino counterparts from the marines and navy, run through Oct. 14. The joint force comprises the largest combined number of troops from the longtime defense allies participating in a military exercise since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office in June.
The exercise is not only a two-way collaboration between the U.S. and the Philippines but an effort to engage allies Japan and South Korea, whose participation is crucial “in a volatile security environment,” Philippine Navy chief Rear Adm. Caesar Bernard Valencia said during an opening ceremony on Monday.
The drills are unfolding against the backdrop of tensions in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
“I hope that we will continue to stand together as allies and partners, armed with the commitment to uphold the values and the principles of freedom, democracy and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific,” Valencia told reporters.
“I look forward to these opportunities that we have in this training exercise as we continue to collaborate in addressing collective security concerns in the region and world-wide.”
Drills will be held in the western island province of Palawan that faces the South China Sea, and in Batanes, a province on Luzon island that lies across the Luzon Strait from Taiwan, according to a news release on the U.S. Marines’ website. At the same time, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members will host American Marines in similar training exercises on Hokkaido island.
Kamandag will include a combined live-fire exercise in central Luzon featuring aircraft and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, as well as amphibious operations along the island’s eastern and northern coasts, the news release said.
“Kamandag” means “Cooperation of the Warriors of the Sea.”
Valencia said the joint exercises would deliver a “platform where nations or participants or observers alike can express their commitment to regional peace and stability.”
The exercises are taking place amid Chinese military expansionism in the South China Sea, where Beijing is locked in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan. Beijing claims historical rights to much of the region, including waters reaching rivals’ shores.
“Exercises like the Kamandag allow us to work together multi-laterally, not only to enforce our commitments to our partner nations, but also to expand our regional relationships. Exercise Kamandag also prepares for a wide-range of challenges protruding (from) traditional security threats on the global scale and non-traditional security concerns such as disaster response operations through a series of field and combined interoperability exercises,” Valencia said.
During the 12-day exercise scores of personnel from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and Korean armed forces will serve as observers and are expected to participate in disaster response drills.
Rear Adm. Derek Trinque, the exercise director on the U.S. side, said the joint drills “will help us carry on this important work together, to ensure our nations’ defense and preserve peace in the region.”
Trinque said the drills would help both forces “to be more prepared to address real-world challenges.”
He said U.S. armed forces enjoy partnerships with like-minded nations across the Indo-Pacific region.
“While it’s always a privilege for us to work bilaterally with the Philippines, with Japan, with the Republic of Korea, when we can bring our allies and partners together, if we can be part of that then we are pleased to do so,” he said.
“As the admiral (Valencia) stated, this is bilateral, and the forces of Japan and Korea are observing this year. We are here on the invitation of the Philippines and so if in the future we have opportunities to work multilaterally, then we welcome that from the United States, but we would never try to tell the Armed Forces of the Philippines how they run their exercise,” Trinque said.