Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Manila and Washington began joint war games today off the Filipino coast at a time of growing tensions in the South China Sea. Filipino President Benigno Aquino said he does not want to start a conflict with Beijing over the waters around the Spratly and Paracel Islands and has signalled his availability for talks; however, China has criticised the US move, with the Chinese defence ministry describing it as proof of a "Cold War mentality".
More than 6,000 Filipino and US soldiers will take part in the 12 days of naval exercises. Philippines' armed forces chief Jessie Dellosa did not specifically mention China or the South China Sea dispute but noted the war games highlighted strong US support for its ally. This "exercise, in coordination with all those we had in the past, (is) timely and mutually beneficial," Dellosa explained.
Vietnam and Philippines have complained about China's growing aggressiveness. Beijing claims large regions of the South China Sea, including its many uninhabited islands rich in natural resources like oil and natural gas.
Tensions spiked last week when the Philippines tried to stop eight Chinese fishing boats off the coast of Luzon. China deployed three vessels in response to the Philippines's attempt to arrest its fishermen, causing a standoff with both countries launching protests and trading accusations that the other was violating their sovereign territory.
In China, regional tensions have become hotly debated among intellectuals and scholars. For Su Hao, director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at the China Foreign Affairs University, the United States wants to show its support for the Philippines over the disputes, but doesn't want to confront China directly yet.
Two other main US allies, Japan and South Korea, will join the drill for the first time. The US is actually taking this opportunity to unite its allies in this region as an alliance to contain China's growth. At the same time, China has the right to develop its naval force whilst building up bilateral trust and maintaining the overall peace in the region.
Not everyone in China agrees with this softer approach. In an unsigned editorial, the pro-government English-language Global Times wrote, "It is an urgent task for China to enhance its deterrence in the South China Sea. [. . .] "China has to adopt firm actions to protect its rights" vis-à-vis the Philippines and "demonstrate its strength".
At the same time, the paper slams "Manila's arrogance" for "acting in the way of the small domineering over the big," which "is one of the most ignorant attitudes in international relations."
"There is no need to take on public opinions in the Philippines, Vietnam and the West," the editorial said. China "should neither fear nor get nettled."
Among the nations of the Asia-Pacific region, China has the most extensive claims in terms of maritime borders in the South China Sea.
Its hegemonic claims are strategic in nature in terms of trade, oil and natural gas. Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are trying to resist Beijing. In this, they are supported by the United States, which has its own strategic interests in the region.
In recent months, a number of warships and fishing boats from different countries have been involved in a spate of incidents.