This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The U.S. Marines showcased their aerial strength and capabilities during a joint exercise with their Philippine counterparts on Thursday by flying sophisticated warplanes over the South China Sea amid fresh tensions in the maritime region.
Two Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jets flew over Zambales province as part of the Marine Aviation Support Activity (MASA), annual two-week drills involving more than 2,700 allied personnel.
Apart from the training drills staged at Subic Bay in Zambales, exercises are planned for Cagayan, Tarlac, Palawan and Cebu provinces through July 21. Subic Bay is the site of a former U.S. Navy base that closed in the early 1990s, at the end of the Cold War.
At the Subic International Airport on Thursday, the U.S. Marines demonstrated loading 1,000-pound laser guided missiles on five F/A-18 Hornets. The Hornets were supposed to launch a mock attack to sink a ship about 12 nautical miles from San Antonio, a coastal town facing the South China Sea, but were hampered by storms.
Second Lt. Madison Walls, U.S. Marines Corps 3rd Aircraft Wing spokesperson, said four Hornets were deployed in the exercises to integrate with Philippine assets in coordinated attacks.
“This year’s drills are not targeted to specific concerns in the region. This is to strengthen our partnership with our allies,” Walls told reporters.
The drills are taking place amid continuing Chinese harassment of the Philippine Coast Guard, according to the government in Manila.
They are also unfolding against the backdrop of tensions between China and the United States over Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
As the Chinese military conducted military drills off Taiwan on Thursday, Chinese air force jets monitored a U.S. Navy plane as it flew through the Taiwan Strait, the Reuters news agency reported.
The joint U.S.-Filipino exercises came a day after the Philippines marked the seventh anniversary of an international arbitration court’s ruling for the Philippines, in a landmark case that Manila brought against Beijing in their territorial dispute over the South China Sea.
Beijing has refused to abide by the ruling and claims nearly the entire South China Sea. This includes waters within the exclusive economic zones of Taiwan, as well as Southeast Asian neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Indonesia has a separate conflict with China over the Natuna Islands.
Earlier this week, Sen. Imee Marcos called on Philippine government agencies to monitor the presence of U.S. military aircraft and Chinese naval ships in the country “equally” as she questioned the presence of U.S. Air Force C-17 aircraft in Manila and Palawan.
Sen. Marcos, who is the older sister of President Ferdinand Marcos, called on Philippine military, defense and foreign affairs officials to investigate whether undisclosed U.S. military flights have exacerbated volatile conditions in the region.
“Too little is known about ongoing U.S. military activity in our territory while we constantly call out the presence of Chinese vessels in the South China Sea,” Sen. Marcos said in a statement on Sunday.
“The same zeal in tracking any violations in our maritime territory and EEZ (exclusive economic zone) must also apply where Philippine air traffic rules and joint military agreements with the U.S. are concerned,” she said.
In February, the Marcos administration granted the American military greater access to bases in his country, alarming nationalist groups into suspecting that the Philippines may be drawn into a war if China invades Taiwan, a U.S. ally.
The allies have an existing Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1951 binding them to aid each other if a foreign power attacks.
According to Philippine Air Force spokeswoman Col. Ma. Consuelo Castillo, all personnel involved in the joint exercises are covered diplomatically.
“As long as they are covered by diplomatic clearances and communicated to us by the DFA, there is no threat because it went through the proper process,” she said, referring to the Department of Foreign Affairs. “All those involved in the training went through the proper process of getting the proper diplomatic clearance.”