Manila (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The Philippines and the United States have begun annual joint military exercises, a few days after Barack Obama's declaration of support for Manila, which is at loggerheads with Beijing over territorial disputes. The war games, which involve 2,500 U.S. and 3 thousand Filipino soldiers, are being held in the province of Zambales, north of Manila, which faces the South China Sea. The Philippine Army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, said that weapons will be tested; there will be specific operations of search and retrieval, as well as drills in response operations to humanitarian crises. There will also be specific test of maritime surveillance systems and landings on mainland.
Philippine Foreign Minister, Albert del Rosario, noted that the training will last 10 days and is necessary to counter challenges posed by "aggressive" neighbors, who aim to "change the status quo". While not directly mentioning China, it is clearly a charge aimed at the Asian giant which has advanced demands on increasingly larger portions of sea, a source of high tensions with other nations in the region, including Vietnam. He noted "large and extensive" maritime and territorial claims which "undermine the rule of law". He added that the joint military exercises with Washington, better known as Balikatan (Shoulder to Shoulder -ed) help the Philippines to improve its ability "in tackling these challenges".
On 28 April, coinciding with the visit of Barack Obama in the Philippines, Manila and Washington signed a military cooperation agreement providing for a greater presence of U.S. troops in the South- East Asian nation. In short, it will have a term of 10 years and will allow the US greater access to the ports, aviation and military bases on Philippine soil. At the same time, U.S. troops will provide training and logistical support to Manila's army. However, the presence of foreign troops on Philippine soil is a source of conflict, and quite a heated one. In recent weeks, the auxiliary bishop of Manila, Msgr. Broderick Pabillo stressed that "Washington's support to the Philippines contributes to a "worsening" of conflicts with China.
The Philippine government's decision to file a motion - tabled on 30 March - at the United Nations tribunal has further exacerbated tensions. The motion outlines the Philippines claims and defines the so-called "ox tongue" used by Beijing to mark their territory "illegal" and "irrational". The complaint is contained in a file of over 4 thousand pages with more than 40 nautical maps. Authorities in Manila are basing their claims on guidelines laid down by the UN Convention on the Seas (UNCLOS), according to which China cannot go beyond the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (Eez) and interfere in their legitimate rights. The Chinese government has responded with the principle of bilateral negotiations to settle the issue and recalls its position of strength and dominance in the Asia-Pacific region
In the East China Sea, China is equally at loggerheads with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal. In the South China Sea Beijing claims sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan. Beijing's hegemony is strategic in nature with regards to trade and oil and natural gas seabed development, in a region crossed by two thirds of the world's maritime trade. The resource-rich islands are almost uninhabited, but are thought to hold large reserves of oil and natural gas, and other raw materials. India, Australia and the United States are also involved in the dispute to varying degrees, with cross-cutting interests and alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, one of the world's main geopolitical hotspots.