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Philippines, US and allies join show of force in South China Sea

Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups in the South China Sea Feb. 9, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt)
April 14, 2024

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

Ships and aircraft from the Philippines, the United States, Japan and Australia conducted a large-scale joint exercise in the South China Sea on Sunday, just a few days ahead of an unprecedented summit in Washington D.C.

On April 11, U.S. President Joe Biden, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will hold their first trilateral meeting at the White House to discuss security cooperation.

The armed forces of the three countries and Australia “successfully conducted the first Multilateral Maritime Cooperative Activity (MMCA) in the West Philippine Sea on Sunday, April 7,” said a statement from the Philippine military, referring to the area within Manila’s exclusive economic zone.

Six naval ships and four aircraft “performed communication exercise, division tactics or Officer of the Watch maneuver, and a photo exercise.”

“These activities were designed to enhance the different forces’ abilities to work together effectively in maritime scenarios,” the statement said.

Philippine Armed Forces chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said that “two Chinese naval ships were sighted during the joint exercise.”

“But these Navy ships did not do anything, [did not] block or prevent the exercises that we were doing. They [exercises] continued and our [multilateral] maritime cooperative activity was successful,” he said.

Manila has recently accused Chinese coast guard vessels of blocking and harassing its resupply missions at the Second Thomas Shoal where it maintains an old warship as a military outpost.

The Japanese Minister of Defense Minoru Kihara, meanwhile, said that the joint activity demonstrated “our collective commitment to strengthen regional and international cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and the U.S. “uphold the right to freedom of navigation and overflight, and respect for maritime rights under international law…” Kihara said in a joint statement

“Every country should be free to conduct lawful air and maritime operations,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin added.

The spokesperson for the Philippine Armed Forces, Col. Xerxes Trinidad, told reporters in Manila that there were “no untoward incidents” during the joint drills.

Beijing’s response

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced on the same day that it also conducted a “joint naval and air combat exercise” in the South China Sea. 

“All military activities that disrupt the South China Sea and create hotspots are under control,” the PLA Southern Theater Command said in a statement on the microblogging site Weibo. 

Beijing has accused Washington of using its allies as “pawns” to destabilize the region and threaten China’s surrounding security.

Recently the Southern Theater Command, whose primary area of responsibility is the South China Sea, has also conducted a real combat training exercise in the South China Sea.