The Philippines and the U.S. will hold joint naval drills near a disputed part of the South China Sea later this month.
On Thursday Reuters reported that the U.S. and the Philippines will hold the naval drill approximately 80 miles from the Scarborough Shoal where Chinese vessels are on continuous patrol. The report said, “Five warships, including a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, and about 1,000 troops will take part in the week-long Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (Carat) exercises, which include live-fire drills 64km off Zambales, on the western shores of the Philippine island of Luzon.”
Philippine media reports indicate that the drills will last from June 26-July 1, and will include personnel and equipment from the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and their Philippine counterparts. The U.S. side will bring the USS Halsey, an Arleigh Burke-class missile-guided destroyer; the USS Ashland, a dock landing ship; and the USS Safeguard, a rescue ship, to the Philippines for the exercise. Other reports said that the U.S. will also have an “underwater construction team, Naval seabees, choppers, [an] SH60B seahawk, [a] mobile diving salvage unit, [an] explosive ordnance disposal unit, two landing craft air cushion, [and] company size amphibious assault vehicles” at the exercise.
On the other hand, the Philippines will be represented at the exercise by the Ramon Alcaraz, a former U.S. coastguard cutter, and the Emilio Jacinto, a former Hong Kong-based British Royal Navy ship. It will also “use Augusta helicopters, one Islander, a Naval Special Operations Group EOD team, three diving teams, two special boat teams, and two marine companies, [a] communications team, [a] band and logistics team and Seabees.”
A spokesperson for the Philippine military, Lieutenant Junior Grade Rommel Rodriguez, told local media: “This has nothing to do with the Philippines and China dispute or the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea,” using the Philippine name for the South China Sea. At the same time, Rodriguez pointed out that previous CARAT exercises have taken place outside the vicinity of Manila’s maritime dispute with China.
The Philippine Inquirer said the CARAT exercises will “involve classroom style discussions on safety, maritime defense awareness flight operations, at-sea events” and an amphibious operation facing the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Reuters quoted Rodriguez as saying that there will be live firing drills. “”They’ll have targets at sea, called ‘killer tomatoes,” the military spokesperson said, adding: “All ships will aim at the hostile objects. Then they will take turns to fire their guns.”
The decision to hold the annual exercises near a disputed part of the South China Sea, especially at a time when tensions are so high already, is likely to win the rebuke of China.
Earlier this week, the Philippines announced that its Air Force had monitored 10 to 12 Chinese Coast Guard vessels patrolling within Manila’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This prompted Manila to ask for an expedited ruling from the international arbitration court in the Hague, where the Philippine case on the South China Sea dispute is currently under review.
In addition, the Philippine Air Force announced this week that it is repairing the Rancudo Airfield on the Philippine-occupied Pagasa Island. An Air Force official in the Philippines also pledged this week that his force can confront any threat the country faces. “Even with our meager resources, we can confront any (force) should there be a need for us to be involved,” the official was quoted as saying.