Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang and U.S. Exercise Deputy Director BGEN Christopher Mahoney (R) USMC attend the opening ceremony of the 2015 Balikatan Exercises between the Philippines and U.S. at the AFP headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, metro Manila April 20, 2015. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine and U.S. soldiers began their biggest combined military exercise in 15 years on Monday, in a demonstration of Washington's commitment to its long-time ally as it rebalances to Asia in the face of China's expansion in the South China Sea.
The annual "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) war games are part of a new U.S. military initiative known as Pacific Pathways, involving a series of drills across the Asia-Pacific as America deploys more troops, ships and aircraft in the region.
"The exercises this week are part of a U.S. rebalance to Asia starting with Balikatan in the Philippines," Major-General Raul del Rosario told Reuters as more than 1,000 US Army troops joined the drills at a jungle army base.
Pacific Pathways, which Washington says is part of a plan to establish a "semi-permanent" U.S. presence in Asia, will comprise 29 exercises across 12 countries in the region over the next five years.
The exercise comes a few days after the Philippines said it was seeking more "substantive" support from the United States on how to counter China's rapid expansion in the South China Sea.
China's rapid reclamation around seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea has alarmed claimants, including the Philippines and Vietnam, and drawn growing criticism from U.S. government officials and the military.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said Washington is concerned China is using its "sheer size and muscle" to push around smaller nations in the disputed sea, drawing a swift rebuke from Beijing.
"We make no pretense that we are helping the Philippines as it fields a minimum credible defense," U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg said at the drills' opening ceremony.
"The U.S. is committed to its alliance ... and the U.S. will defend the important principles of freedom of navigation in the air and the sea."
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China hoped the U.S. and Philippines "do more that is beneficial to increasing mutual security trust between countries in the region and that is beneficial to regional peace and stability".
More than 11,000 American and Filipino troops are taking part in the 10-day drill on the islands of Luzon, Palawan and Panay. The war games will see U.S. fighters rehearse bombing runs and troops involved in live fire drills.
Dozens of leftwing activists protested outside the U.S. embassy in Manila, saying the Americans were using China as a bogeyman to gain a forward base in the Philippines.
Philippines voices China alarm as US war games begin AFP
US, Philippines start combat drills amid Chinese reclamation Associated Press
U.S. defense chief warns against militarization of territorial rows in AsiaReuters
China blasts Obama over military 'muscle' in South China Sea AFP
Philippines says South China Sea dispute a global problem Reuters
Co-chairs of the joint U.S.-Philippines "Balikatan 2015" military exercise Philippine Navy Vice-Admiral Alexander Lopez, left, and U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, center, unfurl the Balikatan flag during the exercise's opening ceremony Monday, April 20, 2015 at Camp Aguinaldo at suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both countries' militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — More than 11,500 American and Filipino military personnel launched one of their largest annual combat exercises Monday amid growing alarm over massive land reclamation by China in disputed South China Sea territories.
Philippine military officials said the "Balikatan," or shoulder-to-shoulder, maneuvers, which involve more than 90 aircraft and ships, were not directed at China. But the venue of some of the war games in waters facing the disputed region and a focus on territorial defense appear to link the exercises to the long-simmering conflict.
More than 120 Philippine and U.S. Marines will be deployed from an amphibious attack vessel Tuesday to simulate the re-taking of an island occupied by enemy forces in northwestern Zambales province, Filipino officials said. There will be live-fire and search and rescue drills as well as civic work in other areas.
China seized control of a shoal off Zambales after a standoff with Philippine ships three years ago. Incensed, the Philippines challenged the validity of China's vast territorial claims before an international arbitration tribunal in 2013, straining ties.
Shortly before overseeing the start of the military exercises, Philippine military chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. held a news conference to release surveillance photos showing Chinese reclamation of eight previously submerged reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands, saying Beijing's actions increase the risk of an accidental confrontation.
"We have compelling reasons to raise our voice to tell the whole world the adverse effects of China's aggressiveness that has created tensions not only among the countries who have overlapping claims in the area," Catapang said.
Washington has expressed concern over China's actions. U.S. Sen. John McCain and three other top-ranking senators overseeing U.S. defense and foreign policy have called for a comprehensive strategy to deal with China's territorial moves, including the massive reclamation, warning that American interests and those of its allies stand at considerable risk.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, warned last week that the artificial islands could serve as resupply bases for China's large fleet of maritime security vessels. China eventually could deploy missiles and radar on them, providing a platform for enforcing a possible air defense identification zone similar to one it declared over disputed Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea in 2013.
The reclamation has destroyed large swaths of coral reefs, Catapang said, adding that Filipino fishermen have been driven away from the construction sites, denying them of their livelihood.
Catapang said some of the reclamation projects were just several kilometers (miles) from a Philippine-occupied island it calls Pag-asa and Second Thomas Shoal, raising the possibility that Chinese military patrols could cut off Manila's access to those areas.
Philippine government agencies were meeting to determine how to respond to the situation, Catapang said, adding that Manila wants a peaceful resolution based on international laws.
Chinese officials have defended the land reclamation by saying it is Beijing's territory, adding that the buildings and infrastructure are for public service use and to support fishermen.
But the Philippine military has said the massive scale of the reclamation and the emergence of runway-like facilities raise the possibility they are for military use to reinforce China's extensive territorial claims.
The chain of Spratly islands, reefs and atolls where most of the Chinese land reclamation has been detected has long been contested by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. Aside from possible oil and natural gas resources, the vast region also straddles busy sea lanes and rich fishing grounds.