Philippines-US war games begin amid China tensions

File photo: Philippine soldiers
Image caption Philippine troops and the US military cement their ties with war games exercises each year

If you go to certain parts of the Philippine island of Palawan this week, you are likely to witness something rather unusual.

You might see a whole wave of speedboats coming to shore, launched from a military warship.

Or US troops discussing a huge theoretical earthquake; or large numbers of them building schools, or practising first aid.

It is the time of year when the Philippines-US military war games get under way - an arrangement from which both countries stand to gain.

The often ill-equipped and inexperienced Philippine troops get a chance to learn from American expertise, while for the US, it is an opportunity to cement its relationship with one of its closest and longest-standing regional allies.

The code name for these exercises is Balikatan - Filipino for shoulder-to-shoulder - to emphasise the closeness between the two nations.

But for officials in China, which is much closer to the Philippines geographically, these exercises could well have the opposite effect.

Instead of feeling shoulder-to-shoulder with Manila, they are more likely to feel they are being given the cold shoulder.

Disputed territory

The games are happening at a time when tensions are already high between China and the Philippines over disputed territorial rights in the South China Sea.

Just last week, the Philippines' biggest warship was involved in a standoff with two Chinese surveillance vessels in the Scarborough Shoal, an area claimed by both Beijing and Manila.

The Philippine navy had been trying to arrest a group of Chinese fisherman, but the surveillance boats prevented them.

Image caption The Philippines' biggest warship was recently in a standoff with two Chinese vessels

And earlier this month, Luo Yuan, a hawkish Chinese general, wrote in the state-run Global Times newspaper that the Philippines was facing its "last chance" to resolve its sovereignty issues.

"The biggest miscalculation of the Philippines is that it has misestimated the strength and willpower of China to defends its territorial integrity," he wrote.

Then there is the US factor. Beijing believes the South China Sea issue is only a regional concern and therefore Washington should not get involved.

But since last year, the US has been doing the exact opposite - refocusing its military attention on Asia and strengthening ties with the Philippines, negotiating an increase in troop numbers and more frequent joint exercises.

So given all this, the presence of thousands of US and Philippine troops holding exercises in Palawan, not far from the Spratly Islands - one of the main disputed areas - is hardly likely to be welcomed in Beijing.

Vested interests

China claims much of the South China Sea, but five other nations - especially the Philippines and Vietnam - claim parts of it too.

The row is about far more than who owns the many small islands peppered around the area. It is about who has the right to tap what are thought to be substantial oil and gas deposits in the region.

And for other nations, including the US, it is about making sure that the South China Sea, which carries about half the world's total trade, remains free for navigation.

The Philippines knows it needs help and support from the US, but at the same time, it is acutely aware that its relationship with China is equally important - some would say even more important.

Manila must therefore walk a tightrope between these two major world powers.

Traditionally, the US has always been the Philippines' favoured ally, as much because of the colonial past as the political present.

But the Philippines has also been heavily influenced by China, and for many hundreds of years longer than by the US.

According to Teresita Ang See, president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, "the Chinese part of Filipino heritage has been taken for granted".

"But right now, the Philippines can benefit as much from looking to China as it can from the US," she added.

This is certainly true economically. China's level of trade with the Philippines is not far behind that of the US, and it is predicted to double by 2016 to $60bn (£38bn) a year.

And there are voices in the Philippines, such as activist Renato Reyes, who say that the government is putting far too much emphasis on the US.

Mr Reyes is vehemently opposed to further US military involvement in the Philippines, saying that if his government "thinks our national interests are synonymous with those of the US, it's wrong."

Building relationships

The Philippines is definitely trying to build bridges with China.

Both President Benigno Aquino and his foreign minister, Albert Del Rosario, have visited Beijing within the past year, signed agreements and organised cultural exchanges.

Even on the South China Sea dispute, one of the most intractable problems between the two nations, some analysts had started to suggest in recent months that the situation was slowly improving.

Last year, the Philippine navy recorded a series of Chinese incursions into its territory. In one incident, Chinese navy ships threatened to ram into a Philippine research vessel. But until the standoff last week, there had been no sightings of unauthorised ships in Philippine territory since the beginning of February.

"China made an effort to calm things down," says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the China advisor for the International Crisis Group. "It saw there was increased concern in the region, and this was leading to countries reaching out to the US."

And it's difficult to know whether voices like Major General Luo Yuan's are really representative of Beijing's official opinion.

According to Ms Kleine-Ahlbrandt, compared with other Chinese departments, there is no centralised mechanism in charge of South China Sea policy.

"China's maritime policy circles use the term 'Nine dragons stirring up the sea' to describe the lack of coordination among the various government agencies," she said.

Beijing's long-term strategy might remain opaque, but after these recent incidents, there is little doubt that tensions have risen once again right now.

And as the troops practice their conflict drills this week, Philippine officials will be fervently hoping they will never have the cause to use their skills for real.

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