MANILA, Philippines — U.S. and Philippine forces launched their biggest combat exercises in decades on Tuesday, highlighted by a barrage of rockets that sank ships in the waters of the disputed South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, where Washington has warned repeatedly told China about its increasingly aggressive attitude. behavior.

The annual drills by longtime treaty allies, called Balikatan, Tagalog for «shoulder to shoulder,» will run through April 28 and involve more than 17,600 military personnel. It will be the latest display of American firepower in Asia as the Biden administration strengthens an arc of alliances to better counter China, including in a potential confrontation over Taiwan, a democratic island that Beijing claims as its own.

That dovetails with efforts by the Philippines under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to defend its territorial interests in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety, by pushing for joint military exercises with the US and allowing rotating batches of forces. Americans to stay in additional Philippine military camps under a 2014 defense pact.

“The relationships we have, that we build in these exercises, will allow us to respond more quickly to conflicts, crises, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” said US Navy Maj. Gen. Eric Austin.

Some 12,200 US military, 5,400 Philippine forces and 111 Australian counterparts are taking part in the exercises, the largest since Balikatan began three decades ago. The drills will display US warships and fighter jets, as well as Patriot missiles, HIMARS rocket launchers and anti-tank javelins, according to US and Philippine military officials.

In a first-time allied live-fire drill, U.S. and Philippine forces will sink a target ship in Philippine territorial waters off the western province of Zambales on April 26, in a coordinated land and coastal artillery barrage and an air raid. Colonel Michael Logico, a Philippine spokesman for Balikatan, told reporters.

“We have to shoot at a target that is closer than we would expect in a real threat, which is an intrusion from an adversary by sea,” Logico told reporters. “We are showing that we are combat ready.”

Asked if Marcos raised any concerns that Beijing could be antagonized by rocket fire near the busy waterway that China considers its territory, Logico said that did not come up when he briefed the president on the event. Marcos wants to witness the live-fire drill, he said.

In the western province of Palawan, which faces the South China Sea, the exercises will involve retaking an island captured by enemy forces, Logico said.

Philippine military officials said the drills were aimed at bolstering the country’s coastal defense and disaster response capabilities and were not directed at any country.

Such field scenarios «will test the capabilities of allies in combined arms with live fire, information and intelligence sharing, communications between maneuver units, logistics operations, amphibious operations,» the US Embassy in Manila said.

The United States and the Philippines will launch their biggest combat exercises in decades on Tuesday that will include live-fire drills, including a rocket attack that will sink a ship in waters of the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait that is likely to inflame China.
Protesters burn a makeshift American flag at a rally in Quezon City on Tuesday.Gerard Carreon / AP

In a sign of deepening defense cooperation, the Philippine foreign and defense secretaries will meet with their US counterparts in Washington on Tuesday to discuss the US military presence and proposed joint naval patrols, officials said.

Washington and Beijing have been on a collision course over longstanding territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines and four other governments, and Beijing’s goal of annexing Taiwan, by force if necessary.

China warned last week against intensifying the US military deployment in the region. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning told a regular press conference in Beijing that it would «only lead to more tensions and less peace and stability in the region.»

The Balikatan exercises began in the Philippines a day after China wrapped up three days of combat exercises simulating sealing off Taiwan, following Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. , last week in California, which angered Beijing.

On Monday, the US 7th Fleet deployed the guided-missile destroyer USS Milius 12 nautical miles off Mischief Reef, a Manila-claimed coral outcrop that China seized in the mid-1990s and became one of the seven missile-protected island bases in the South. hotly contested Spratlys archipelago in the China Sea. The US military has been conducting such freedom of navigation operations for years to challenge China’s expansive territorial claims.

«As long as some countries continue to claim and enforce limits on rights that exceed their authority under international law, the United States will continue to uphold the rights and freedoms of the sea guaranteed to all,» the 7th Fleet said.