US military boss to view joint exercises

Balikatan’s beach landing drills are presumably particularly contentious in┬áBeijing. Source: Wikimedia

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter has arrived in the Philippines to reinforce the significance of military relations, as China pursue its claims in the South China Sea.

Carter’s visit comes as the US and Philippines conduct joint military drills and after the governments agreed a deal to allow a US presence at five Philippine military bases.

Defence officials from the Philippines and Vietnam would meet this week to explore further joint exercises and naval patrols, sources said, shoring up a new alliance between two states in dispute with China.

They would discuss patrols and exercises although a deal this week was unlikely, an anonymous military source was quoted saying. “These are initial discussions,” he said. “These may take time but we would like to move to the next level.”

Carter told the media that more bases would be opened to US forces in the future. Carter will observe annual US-Philippine exercises, known as Balikatan, with around 4,400 US troops and 3,000 Philippine personnel taking part.

Further meetings between defence officials from Manila and Washington will be held this week to discuss joint exercises and navy patrols.

China claims almost the whole South China Sea, which is thought to have have huge fuel reserves. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims with China. An estimated US$5 trillion in trade is shipped through the contested waters a year.

Meanwhile, a ruling is expected on an international arbitration case Manila has brought against China in The Hague. China has refuses to recognise the case and argues that all disputes should be resolved through bilateral negotiations.

“The trip carries greater weight because of the impending arbitration ruling,” said Patrick Cronin of the Centre for a New American Security. “Secretary Carter’s task is to reassure the Philippines that it has US security backing for a rules-based approach to settling disputes.”

An anonymous US official said China’s vessels were now shadowing every US ship in the South China Sea and routine ship-to-ship communications had become increasingly tense and sometimes unprofessional.

This year Washington is providing the Philippines with about US$40 million as part of a five-year, US$425-million programme called the Maritime Security Initiative.

It is designed to enable classified information to be shared between the US and the Philippines and to improve the Philippine patrol ships.

Similar funding could be extended to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, said Ernest Bower of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.