This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The Philippines and the United States are set to hold larger joint army exercises this year amid tensions in the region with China.
Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Ryan, who led a U.S. Army delegation during talks this week in Manila, told the Associated Press news agency that Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea was “absolutely” on participants’ minds when they train.
This year, around 3,000 troops from the Philippine Army (PA) and U.S. Army Pacific (USARPC) are expected to take part in Exercise Salaknib, up from 2,200 last year. The annual bilateral exercise is meant to boost both sides’ abilities to work with each other when required.
“PA and USARPAC are set to stage a scaled-up iteration of Exercise Salaknib in two phases this year,” the Philippine Army said in a statement Friday, adding that these would be held in the first and second quarters of 2023.
On Wednesday, senior officials of both armies met behind closed doors to refine their engagement terms and explore other opportunities for cooperation.
The troops expected to participate in this year’s Exercise Salaknib will come from the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division and the Philippine Army’s 5th and 7th Infantry Divisions and 1st Brigade Combat Team. These Philippine Army units serve as the military’s main defense against territorial threats to the Southeast Asian country.
Camp Melchor Dela Cruz, the headquarters of one of these Philippine infantry divisions, is in northern Isabela province, which faces neighbor Taiwan. It is reportedly one of four new military bases that Americans will have access to under an expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) announced last week.
The Philippine Army’s 7th Infantry Division is based in Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, which is believed to be among five military sites that the U.S. had previously been granted access to under the EDCA.
Signed in 2014, the EDCA supplements the Visiting Forces Agreement, a 1999 bilateral pact providing legal cover for large-scale joint military exercises between the U.S. and Philippines, Washington’s longtime defense ally in Asia.
Analysts had said that allowing the Americans greater access to more military facilities in the Philippines was likely in preparation for a potential invasion of Taiwan by China.
Beijing considers Taiwan a rogue province. If China invades the island, U.S. allies in the region would be affected as well, including the Philippines.
Manila is protected by Washington under a Mutual Defense Treaty dating back to 1951.
Ryan, the American general, said U.S. forces and their Asian allies were ready for battle after continued joint combat exercises over the years.
“We feel duty-bound to ensure that the Philippines can maintain and will maintain their sovereignty,” the Associated Press quoted Ryan as saying.
“So aggression from the People’s Republic of China that makes our treaty ally uncomfortable makes us uncomfortable.”
Manila is engaged in a bitter territorial dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea. In 2016, a United Nations tribunal dismissed China’s sweeping claims over most of the South China Sea, but Beijing has refused to recognize the ruling.
Manila has alleged in recent months that Chinese coast guard ships have stepped up their activities and harassment against Philippine law enforcement vessels in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Beijing last week slammed Manila and Washington’s closer ties under the newly expanded EDCA, saying in a statement that U.S. military presence in the region undermined peace and stability.
“China always holds that defense and security cooperation between countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability, not target against any third party, even less to harm the interests of a third party,” the Chinese Embassy in Manila said in a statement.