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Philippines, US Hold Joint Military Exercise to Protect Claims in South China Sea

A formidable assembly of 17,000 troops convenes in the Philippines for the “Balikatan” exercise, translated as “Shoulder to Shoulder”, lasting until April 28th. The spectacle entails Filipino forces collaborating with their American counterparts and a small Australian detachment. The 18-day demonstration encompasses naval and coastal defenses, with its anti-China implications never more evident. The Balikatan exercise is commencing a mere day after China concluded its menacing exercises near Taiwan, showcasing a response to China’s disapproval of the Taiwanese president’s US visit, which contravened Beijing’s One China policy.

In Manila, the US Embassy witnessed a mere 50 protestors, largely from leftist factions, decrying the Balikatan exercise with signs like “US Troops Out!”. They express concerns over a potential rise in sexual violence, prostitution, agricultural damage, and, most significantly, an augmented probability of the Philippines becoming a battleground for an imperialist war between the US and China.

Manila’s primary objective is safeguarding its territorial claims in the contested South China Sea. China’s assertion of dominion over 90% of the resource-laden and strategically significant area has fueled tensions, with Beijing progressively militarizing reefs and atolls. The Philippines’ aging navy stands little chance against China’s modern armada, and its army, preoccupied with domestic rebels, offers scant external defense.

Despite reservations about American hegemony, Filipino support for the former colonizer’s military presence grows. Nationalist pressure in 1992 forced the US to shutter its Philippine bases, including Subic Bay, its largest overseas naval base. However, the Philippines subsequently welcomed the US military back, initially for counterterrorism purposes and, presently, for rotations between Filipino bases.

In 2016, the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague dismissed China’s claims to the contested Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea and ruled in favor of Manila. Beijing, however, “neither accepted nor recognized” the ruling. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, critical of the US at the time, also disregarded the verdict sought by his predecessor, opting to court China in the hope of securing billions in investments for the Philippines.

Duterte’s initial dismissal of the urgency surrounding the Philippines’ maritime security challenges gradually shifted, recounts Edcel Ibarra, a political lecturer at the University of the Philippines in Manila. The turning point arose as Beijing consistently failed to meet Duterte’s expectations while simultaneously expanding its influence in the South China Sea, prompting even the populist leader to distance himself.

During the 2022 election campaign, Duterte’s successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., appeared to pursue a foreign policy of equidistance between China and the US. However, this spring, he sought closer political and military ties with Washington, echoing the alliance of his father’s dictatorial regime.

In February, the Marcos administration expanded the number of US-accessible bases from five to nine, three of which are situated at Luzon’s northern tip, near Taiwan, while the fourth lies off Palawan Island’s southern edge, adjacent to the disputed South China Sea. Beijing promptly issued a warning, asserting that military cooperation between the US and the Philippines must not interfere in the conflict.

Cagayan province’s governor, Manuel Mamba, initially opposed the presence of US troops in his region, fearing it could compromise Chinese investments and draw the area into a conflict over Taiwan. President Marcos’ elder sister, Senator Imee Marcos, also urged caution, suggesting the number of US soldiers in the Philippines may need to be limited. Nonetheless, President Marcos insists that the maneuvers and US access to Philippine bases are exclusively for the Philippines’ defense. Even the protestors outside the US Embassy criticized “China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea” in their statement.

In 2012, the Manila government introduced the term “West Philippine Sea” as an alternative to the conventional “South China Sea”, a move aimed at distinguishing the nation’s identity and bolstering its territorial claims on the international stage.