Australian and Filipino forces, backed by U.S. Marines, practiced retaking an island seized by hostile forces in a large military drill Friday on the northwestern Philippine coast facing the disputed South China Sea.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and visiting Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles watched the mock beach landings, assaults, and helicopter insertion of forces on a Philippine navy base with 1,200 Australians, 560 Filipinos, and 120 U.S. Marines participating.
On Monday, Australian, Filipino, and American forces conducted air assault maneuvers in Rizal town in western Palawan province, which also faces the South China Sea.
The three countries are among the most vocal critics of China’s increasingly aggressive and confrontational actions in the disputed waters, but the Philippine military said Beijing was not the envisioned target of the combat drills, the largest so far between Australia and the Philippines.
“It’s an important aspect of how we prepare for any eventuality and considering that there have been so many events that attest to the volatility of the region,” Marcos said in a news conference after the drills.
Marles said in a separate news conference with his Philippine counterpart, Gilberto Teodoro Jr., that the drills were aimed at promoting the rule of law and peace in the region.
“The message that we want to convey to the region and to the world from an exercise of this kind is that we are two countries committed to the global rules-based order,” Marles said. “We are committed to an idea of a world in which disputes are determined by reference to international law.”
“Peace is maintained through the protection of the global rules-based order and its functionality around the world and, in truth, around the world today, we see it under pressure,” Marles said.
Marles and Teodoro said in a joint statement that they would pursue plans for joint patrols in the South China Sea, which the Australian defense chief said may be launched soon.
They reaffirmed support for a 2016 ruling by an arbitration tribunal in The Hague under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea that largely invalidated China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea and upheld the Philippines’ control over resources in a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
China refused to participate in the arbitration and continues to defy the ruling.
In the latest flare-ups in the disputes, a Chinese coast guard ship used a water cannon on August 5 to try to block a Philippine supply run at Second Thomas Shoal, where Filipino troops are stationed.
Australia and the United States expressed support to the Philippines and raised strong concerns over the Chinese coast guard ships’ actions. Washington renewed a warning that it is obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, ships, and aircraft come under attack, including in the South China Sea.
Two Philippine supply boats managed to pass the Chinese blockade on Tuesday in a tense confrontation witnessed by journalists from The Associated Press.
China has warned the U.S. not to meddle in what it says is a purely Asian dispute. Washington has said it will continue patrolling the disputed waters to promote freedom of navigation and overflight.
Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan have overlapping territorial claims in the waterway, a potential Asian flashpoint which has also become a delicate front in the U.S.-China rivalry.