The Philippines and the United States have announced plans to hold their largest-ever joint military exercises next month amid growing tensions with China charged by territorial disputes.
A spokesperson for the annual exercises said on Tuesday that this year's "Balikatan" or “shoulder-to-shoulder” drills are to be carried out across several provinces, including Palawan, which is near the South China Sea.
"This is officially the largest Balikatan exercise," Col. Michael Logico, director of the Philippine military's training center and spokesperson for the event pointed out in his statement.
The drills, which will be held from April 11 to 28, will see 17,600 Filipino and American forces participating, including around 12,000 from the United States, and "live fire exercises into the water" for the first time, according to Logico.
They will also see some 111 participants from the Australian defense force, though their participation will be limited to "smaller land-based exercises", Logico added.
The biggest ever joint military drills in which Filipino and American forces took part was held in 2015 in which about 11,000 troops took part.
Officials from both countries said that the objective of the military drill was to strengthen joint forces against the growing clout of China, especially in the South China Sea.
Regarding the possibility of the joint exercises further infuriating China, Logico said, "We have the absolute, inalienable right to defend our territory. We are here to show that we are combat-ready."
In the meantime, China opposes holding joint military exercises, arguing that the US presence in the Philippines undermines regional stability.
This year's larger-scale drills follow improved ties between Washington and Manila under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Marcos agreed last month to expand the United States access to his country's military bases against the backdrop of what the Philippines calls "aggressive" Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
Under Marcos' agreement with the White House, the US will likely be gaining access to the Philippines' military bases on the northern island of Luzon.
Washington’s access to these bases, according to military experts, would give the American forces a strategic position from which to mount operations in the event of a conflict over Chinese Taipei or in the South China Sea.
China claims sovereignty over all of the South China Sea. Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines also have claims, resulting in territorial disputes.
The waters are believed to sit atop vast reserves of oil and gas.
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