On Monday, the US and the Philippines kicked off two weeks of military drills that come amid heightened tensions between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea.
This year’s drills, known as the Balikatan exercises, are being held at a scaled-down level compared to previous years due to coronavirus. Last year’s Balikatan exercises were postponed due to the pandemic. But the message to Beijing is still clear, and it comes as the US is stepping up its overall presence in the region.
This year’s Balikatan exercises will involve about 700 US troops and 1,300 Philippines soldiers.
The Philippines have been protesting the presence of Chinese vessels at Whitson Reef, a disputed area of the South China Sea. Manila claims the boats are a “maritime militia,” while China insists they are only fishing vessels.
The Whitson Reef spat has caused the US to reaffirm its support for Manila and invoke the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, reminding China that any naval incident with the Philippines would bring the US into war.
The US and the Philippines are working on negotiating an extension of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which allows US troops in the Southeast Asian country on a rotational basis. Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was ready to scrap the VFA over US sanctions on Philippine officials but reversed the decision citing tensions in the South China Sea.