LAOAG, Philippines — U.S. and Philippine forces, backed by an Australian air force surveillance aircraft, unleashed a barrage of high-precision rockets, artillery fire and airstrikes Wednesday and sank a mock enemy ship as part of large-scale war drills in and near the disputed South China Sea that have antagonized Beijing.

Military officials and diplomats from several countries watched the display of firepower from a hilltop along a sandy coast in Laoag City in Ilocos Norte, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s northern home province.

More than 16,000 military personnel from the United States and the Philippines, along with a few hundred Australian troops and military observers from 14 countries, were participating in annual combat-readiness drills called Balikatan, Tagalog for shoulder-to-shoulder. The drills, which started April 22 and end Friday, include a scenario of a foreign invasion of the Philippine archipelago.

It’s the latest indication of how the United States and the Philippines have bolstered a defense treaty alliance that started in the 1950s amid their concern in recent years over China’s increasingly aggressive actions in disputed territories in Asia.

Marcos has ordered his military to shift its focus to external defense from decades-long domestic anti-insurgency operations as China’s actions in the South China Sea become a top concern. That strategic shift dovetails with the efforts of U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration to reinforce an arc of alliances in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China.

China has angered the Philippines by repeatedly harassing its navy and coast guard ships with powerful water cannons, a military-grade laser, blocking movements and other dangerous maneuvers in the high seas near two disputed South China Sea shoals. They have led to minor collision that have injured several Filipino navy personnel and damaged supply boats.

“We’re under the gun,” Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Romualdez told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

“We don’t have the wherewithal to be able to fight all of this bullying coming from China so where else will we go?” Romualdez said. “We went to the right party, which is the United States and those that believe in what the U.S. is doing.”

China has accused the Philippines of setting off the hostilities in the disputed waters by encroaching in what it says are its offshore territories, demarcated by 10 dashes on a map. It says the Chinese coast guard and navy have been forced to take action to expel Philippine coast guard and other vessels from those areas. The Philippines has repeatedly cited a 2016 international arbitration ruling based on the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea that invalidated China’s claim over virtually the entire South China Sea on historical grounds.

China did not participate in the arbitration complaint filed by the Philippines in 2013, and has rejected the ruling and continues to defy it.

After being hit repeatedly by missile and artillery fire and bombs dropped by U.S. and Philippine warplanes during the combat drills, the mock enemy ship sank as black smoke billowed from its stern. The target ship was made in China but decommissioned by the Philippine navy in 2020 due to mechanical and electrical issues, according to the Philippine military.

Philippine military officials said the drills were not directed at any country. China has opposed military drills involving U.S. forces as well as increasing U.S. military deployments in the region, which it warned would escalate tensions and endanger regional stability.

For the first time in years, the combat exercises were staged in and near the fiercely contested Spratly Islands area, which China has closely guarded with its coast guard, navy and suspected militia flotillas.

On Monday, U.S. and Filipino marines transported by Black Hawk helicopters practiced securing an airfield in the country’s northernmost town of Itbayat along the Bashi Channel near southern Taiwan. A small group of journalists, including from the AP, was invited to witness the air and ground combat maneuvers.

“They’re not operating in safe areas. They’re operating slightly further to the western bounds and they’re doing that in order to practice in ways that they might have to work for real,” said British Defense Attaché to Manila Bea Walcot, who watched the ship-sinking drill.

Washington and Beijing have been on a collision course over China’s increasingly assertive actions to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and Beijing’s stated goal of annexing Taiwan, by force if necessary.

In February last year, Marcos approved a wider U.S. military presence in the Philippines by allowing rotating groups of American military forces to stay in four more Philippine military camps. That was a sharp turnaround from his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who feared that a larger American military footprint would antagonize Beijing.

China strongly opposed the move, which allows U.S. forces to establish staging grounds and surveillance posts in the northern Philippines across the channel from Taiwan, and in western Philippine provinces facing the South China Sea.

China has warned that the deepening security alliance between Washington and Manila and their ongoing military drills should not harm its security and territorial interests or interfere in the territorial disputes. The Philippines countered that it has the right to defend its sovereignty and territorial interests.

“An alliance is very important to show China that you may have all the ships that you have, but we have a lot of firepower to sink all of them,” Romualdez said.

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