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US, Philippines to hold ‘largest-ever’ war games amid China tensions

This file photo taken on April 11, 2019, shows a US V-22 Osprey taking off from the USS Wasp, the US Navy's multipurpose amphibious assault ship, during amphibious landing drills as part of the annual joint US-Philippines military exercise on the shores of San Antonio facing the South China sea in Zambales province. (Photo by AFP)

The Philippines and the United States are planning to hold their largest-ever joint military drills near the South China Sea next week, amid rising tensions with China over the strategic waterway.

The US embassy in Manila said in a statement on Tuesday that some 5,100 American soldiers and 3,800 Philippine military members will take part in the 12-day annual drills on the main island of Luzon in the Southeast Asian archipelago.

The joint military exercises, known as Balikatan 2022, slated to kick off on March 28, will focus on maritime security, live-fire training, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the statement said.

Major General Jay Bargeron, commander of the US 3rd Marine Division, said during the exercise, the US and Philippine military will train together to “expand and advance shared tactics, techniques, and procedures that strengthen our response capabilities and readiness for real-world challenges.”

“Balikatan (2022) coincides with the 75th anniversary of US-Philippine security cooperation and a shared commitment to promoting peace,” said Bargeron. “Our alliance remains a key source of strength and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Bargeron went on to say that "Balikatan (2022) coincides with the 75th anniversary of US-Philippine security cooperation," adding that, “Our alliance remains a key source of strength and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Major General Charlton Sean Gaerlan of the Philippine military also said the military exercise “is a testament to the strength of the Philippines and US’ security relationship.”

The US-Philippine mutual defense treaty dates back to 1951, shortly after the former American colony became fully independent.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had threatened to scrap the long-standing military alliance. However, he restored the deal last year.

The annual war games come as Chinese officials have warned that the US is trying to build an Indo-Pacific version of NATO" to "suppress" China's rise in the wider Asia-Pacific region.

The exercises will also be held in the shadow of Russia's military operation in Ukraine, where the US and its allies are providing defensive weapons to Kiev.  

Recent maneuvers between the longtime allies have focused on potential conflict in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.

This year’s military exercises also mark a return to full-scale drills that were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fewer than 1,000 soldiers from the US and Philippines joined the training last year.

China claims the South China Sea in its entirety. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei have overlapping claims to parts of the sea. The US, however, sides with Beijing’s rival claimants in the dispute.

The United States routinely sends its warships and warplanes to the South China Sea to assert what it calls its “right” to “freedom of navigation.”

China has frequently warned the US against military activities in the sea. Beijing says potential close military encounters between the air and naval forces of the two countries in the region may cause accidents.

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