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Philippines, Japan, US coast guards kick off first trilateral sea exercises

welcome ceremonies for Japanese and American coast guard ships (Philippines Coast Guard/Facebook)
June 04, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The coast guards of defense allies the Philippines, United States and Japan kicked off their first-ever joint drills Thursday in waters adjacent to the South China Sea amid tensions with Beijing in that contested maritime region.

The weeklong Kaagapay (Side-by-Side) Exercises 2023 were inaugurated when the respective American and Japanese coast guard ships, the Stratton and the Akitsushima, docked at Manila’s South Harbor during the day.

The drills, scheduled through June 7, will involve exercises in maritime law enforcement, maritime security and safety, search and rescue, as well as environmental protection, officials said.

welcome ceremonies for Japanese and American coast guard ships (Philippines Coast Guard/Facebook)

Most of the exercises will take place in the municipality of Mariveles, along the Bataan Peninsula near the South China Sea, Philippine Coast Guard Vice Adm. Rolando Punzalan Jr. said.

“The U.S. Coast Guard and Japan Coast Guard have been assisting us in our human resource development program, particularly in law enforcement training. This is a good opportunity to thank and show them what our personnel learned from their programs,” Punzalan said in a speech during the welcoming ceremony.

Diplomats and officials from the three countries were on hand for the ships’ arrival. It occurred two days after the American military accused China of carrying out a dangerously aggressive maneuver in the skies above the South China Sea when a Chinese fighter jet flew close and across the flight path of a U.S. reconnaissance plane.

Japan Coast Guard (Philippines Coast Guard/Facebook)

The Chinese government has since responded by accusing the U.S. of fanning tensions through provocative actions such as sending reconnaissance flights over the disputed waters. Beijing described these as a threat to its sovereignty and security, according to reports.

The unprecedented trilateral drills are happening more than a month after the Philippines and the U.S. held their biggest annual Balikatan joint exercises in the coastal town of San Antonio in Zambales, a province that also faces the South China Sea. 

The current drills also follow an announcement by Manila and Tokyo that they would boost defense ties.

Kenichi Matsuda, the interim chargé d’affaires at the Japanese embassy who was on hand, affirmed his government’s support for the trilateral drills and underscored what he said was the “shared history” among the three countries.

welcome ceremonies for Japanese and American coast guard ships (Philippines Coast Guard/Facebook)

“We will concretely advance cooperation with the Philippines to bolster maritime security capabilities and freedom of navigation,” Matsuda said.

Japan, as a maritime nation, “has a stake to uphold and protect rules-based maritime order,” he said.

It has been helping the Philippine Coast Guard with its modernization. This includes a loan for the PCG’s two capital ships, the 97-meter (318-foot) multi-role response ships BRP Teresa Magbanua and BRP Melchora Aquino, which are among the ships that will participate in the trilateral exercises.

“This first tri-lateral engagement between the coast guards of these nations will provide invaluable opportunities to strengthen global maritime governance through professional exchanges and combined operations,” said Capt. Brian Krautler, the U.S. Coast Guard commander of the Stratton.

welcome ceremonies for Japanese and American coast guard ships (Philippines Coast Guard/Facebook)

“Together we’ll demonstrate professional, rules-based standards of maritime operations with our steadfast partners to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

In contrast to remarks from the Japanese and American officials, PCG spokesman Armand Balilo played down the drills, saying these were not meant to deter China.

“This is a coast guard exercise on maritime law enforcement, search and rescue, that’s all,” Balilo told reporters. 

“This has nothing to do with the issues in the West Philippine Sea,” he added, referring to waters claimed by Manila in the South China Sea.

China has competing claims in the South China Sea with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam. In 2016, an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and against Beijing’s sweeping “nine-dash line,” but China has since refused to acknowledge the ruling.