Manila, Jun 1 (EFE).- The coast guards of the United States, Japan and the Philippines on Thursday kicked off joint naval exercises in Philippine territorial waters in the South China Sea, Philippine coast guard spokesperson Armand Balillo told EFE.
The maneuvers will conclude on June 7 and will involve four Philippine ships, one American and one Japanese.
The drills are aimed at “strengthening collaboration in rescue operations and law enforcement,” Balillo told EFE on telephone.
“The trilateral drills have been a US and Japanese initiative, while Australia would join as an observer,” he added.
The spokesperson explained that one of the exercises will simulate “the detection and boarding of a vessel carrying weapons of mass destruction.”
These maneuvers are a prelude to joint patrols by Washington and Manila in the South China Sea, scheduled to start in October this year, and come amid growing tensions between China and the US over Beijing’s aggression in those waters and around Taiwan.
China claims sovereignty over most of the waters near the western Philippine coast and occupies several of the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal, located within the 200 nautical mile limit established by the United Nations to determine the maritime sovereignty of countries, according to a convention which China ratified in 1996.
The territorial conflict between Beijing and Manila in the South China Sea has escalated in recent months, following recent allegations by the Philippines of the use of military lasers by Chinese ships against the Philippine coast guard.
Experts say that the joint naval exercises and the joint patrols by the Philippine and US coast guards could escalate tensions in the region.
However, Balillo has played down the importance of the exercises, describing them as “a usual routine activity among coast guard agencies,” according to local media reports on Thursday.
The US, Japan and Australia have consistently condemned Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea in recent months and have shown willingness to work more closely with the Philippines since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. began his presidency last year, replacing his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who favored ties with China. EFE