A US warship laden with high-tech fighter planes took center stage at key war games in the Philippines Thursday, brandishing military might as fresh tensions bubble in the contentious South China Sea.
The amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, with at least 10 F-35B stealth jets on deck, stood guard as amphibious tanks rolled onto a Philippine beach located a short sail from islands also claimed by China.
The vessel was in the area for the long-running Balikatan US-Philippine military drills, which come as Manila pushes back against the recent presence of hundreds of Chinese ships near its Pag-asa (Thitu) island.
“We can’t disclose the official movements of the USS Wasp for security reasons, but they have been operating in the South China Sea region… as part of the exercise,” US spokeswoman Second Lt. Tori Sharpe told reporters.
President Rodrigo Duterte had largely set aside the once-tense dispute over China’s expansive claims to the resource-rich waterway
The Philippines called the boats’ presence “illegal” and Duterte threatened China with possible military action if it touches the island.
China claims most of the sea, including waters and islands close to the shores of its neighbors. It has built artificial islands and military installations that the US warned could curtail right of passage by non-Chinese vessels.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have also all staked claims to various islands and reefs in the sea that is thought to have rich petroleum reserves deep beneath its waters.
The Wasp’s participation in the exercises represents “an increase in military capability committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the US navy said in a press release on its arrival last week.
The two-week Balikatan exercises, which opened April 1, include some 4,000 Philippine, 3,500 American, and 50 Australian troops.
Duterte had threatened to quit the drills as part of his pivot away from former colonial master the US and toward China, but they have carried on after being toned down for a few years.
As Duterte has adopted a friendlier stance with China, the US has moved to shore up its ties with Manila and assert its presence in the South China Sea.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged in March to come to the Philippines’ defense in case of an “armed attack” in the sea, a clear assurance Philippines leaders had long sought.
Duterte has been criticized at home as being too eager to grow ties with Beijing, and giving up too much leverage on the South China Sea issue.
China has been reserved in its comments regarding Manila’s recent uptick in assertiveness over the Pag-asa Island, saying that it was working with the Philippines and looking into the reports regarding Chinese ships.
On Wednesday, personnel from the Philippine and US Arm participated in so-called “Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise” at Col. Ernesto Ravina Air Base, Crow Valley, Camp O’Donnell, Tarlac.
CALFEX is part of this year’s “Balikatan” exercises, which started April 1 and will conclude on Friday.
“Service members from across the Philippine and US militaries came together using their ground maneuver, artillery, mortars and air elements to successfully execute this complex live fire event,” Stryker Brigade Combat Team commander, US Army Col. Leo Wyszynski, said in a message to reporters.
“Throughout the exercise, from planning to execution, we’ve shared tactics and techniques that will allow us better operate together to ensure regional stability,” he added.
During the exercise, supporting air and ground combat elements worked together to provide indirect and suppressing fire, to allow the main ground forces to advance and destroy a hypothetical enemy.
Once the combined team neutralized the hypothetical threat, they consolidated in preparation for potential follow-on orders.
“The CALFEX does not only showcase the Philippine and US militaries’ capabilities in combined arms, it also highlights how both militaries work together in joint operations,” 1st Brigade Combat Team commander, Philippine Army Brig. Gen. Leopoldo A. Imbang Jr. said.
The exercise tested the service members’ maneuver warfare skills and strengthened their ability to fight together. Training events such as CALFEX help participating forces maintain a high level of responsiveness and enhance combined military-to-military relations by enabling a multinational, multi-service cadre of troops to work together towards accomplishing a common goal.
“Without a doubt, training over the last week has increased the readiness of our forces,” Wyszynski said.
The CALFEX was part of a broader series of joint Philippine-US interoperability events during Balikatan, which also includes an amphibious exercise, military operations in urban terrain, and aviation operations.
READ: ‘Balikatan’ instrumental to region’s stability
COMMENT DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted on this Web site are not in any way endorsed by Manila Standard. Comments are views by manilastandard.net readers who exercise their right to free expression and they do not necessarily represent or reflect the position or viewpoint of manilastandard.net. While reserving this publication’s right to delete comments that are deemed offensive, indecent or inconsistent with Manila Standard editorial standards, Manila Standard may not be held liable for any false information posted by readers in this comments section.