The US and the Philippines on Tuesday launched their Balikatan exercises, which are being touted as the largest-ever joint military drills between the long-time treaty allies.
The drills are sure to escalate tensions with China and include a provocative show of force in the South China Sea that will involve firing live-fire rounds to sink a target ship off the coast of the Philippine province of Zambales.
“We have to fire at a target that is closer to what we would expect in an actual threat, which is an intrusion coming from an adversary by sea,” said Col. Michael Logico, a Philippine spokesman for the drills, according to AP. “We are demonstrating that we are combat-ready.”
The exercises sparked protests in the Philippines as there is opposition in the country to the growing US-Philippine military ties. Demonstrations were held outside of the US embassy in Manila and outside the Armed Forces of the Philippines headquarters in Quezon City.
More than 17,000 troops will participate in the Balikatan exercises, including 12,000 Americans, and the drills will run until April 28. US and Philippine military officials said the drills will showcase US warships, fighter jets, HIMARS rocket systems, Patriot air defense systems, and Javelin anti-tank missiles.
The drills come after Washington and Manila inked a deal to expand their alliance by allowing a greater US military presence in the Philippines. The US military now has access to four new bases, including three in the north that can be used as staging grounds for a future war over Taiwan and one on the South China Sea island province of Palawan.
The US has repeatedly committed to going to war if Beijing and Manila’s maritime dispute in the South China Sea turns hot. Whenever there are incidents between Chinese and Philippine boats in the waters, the US reminds China that attacks on Philippine vessels would invoke the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty.