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US, PHL TROOPS GIRDING FOR WAR WITH CHINA? Beijing ops at sea alarm Austin, Galvez; US warship, troops arrive for big drills

By ALFRED GABOT and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE

Editor in Chief and Managing Editor

CAMP AGUINALDO/WASHINGTON D.C. – As top American military officials warn of a likely war between the United States and China by 2025 due to heated tensions in the South China Sea, among others, it appears that US and Philippine troops are now preparing for “a possible war” with China.

This loomed as  live-fire training, using naval artillery gunfire and aviation rockets and bombs to sink a vessel in the West Philippine Sea, where China continues its aggressive maneuvers, will highlight the expanded “Balikatan” military exercises of troops of the two countries starting next month.

It was gathered that the military drill will also feature the first live-firing of a US Patriot missile as part of exercises in coastal defense.

As this developed, the defense chiefs of US and the Philippines “condemned” on March 20 what they called as China’s “gray zone” activities in the West Philippine Sea as military leaders in Indo Pacific raised the alarm over the tension and conflict in the region.

But the U.S. presence in the region was not an effort to contain or invite conflict with China, said Admiral John Aquilino, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, referring to an “AUKUS” partnership between Australia, Britain and the United States to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.

“As good partners, United States and the United Kingdom will go ahead and assist in the ability for Australia to defend themselves,” Aquilino said in a lecture in Singapore.

 US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and Philippine Department of National Defense Officer in Charge Carlito Galvez Jr. said the China’s operations “interfere with the livelihoods of local Philippine communities and the rights of other claimant states that seek to operate lawfully in the South China Sea consistent with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling.”

The two officials expressed concern over China’s “massing of more than 40 vessels,” including a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ship within the 12-nautical mile territorial sea of Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea this month.

“The swarming of vessels falls on the heels of a dangerous incident last month, in which the PRC Coast Guard directed a military-grade laser against a Philippine vessel operating lawfully around Second Thomas Shoal, temporarily blinding some of the crew,” said a US Department of Defense readout.

In a related development, the USS America (LHA-6), an amphibious assault ship and one of the biggest ships of the US Navy,  docked at the Port of Manila to give its crew time for rest and recreation. The ship sailed from Japan after finishing joint military exercises.

The Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement allows visits of American ships and planes in the country.

The flight deck of USS Amrica, one of the biggest US Navy ships in the world, can accommodate 25 aircrafts, and six more for landing and takeoff, according radio and television reports.

The ship, which also carries anti-air missiles, serves as backup for marine flight operations.

USS America’s commanding officer Captain Shockey Snyder said the ship sailed through South China Sea on its way to the Philippines.
After their ongoing “Salacnib” military drills, the US and Philippine troops will proceed with their expanded “Balikatan” joint US-Philippines war exercises that will open after the Holy Week on April 11 and scheduled to end on April 28. It will be staged in Batanes, Palawan and Zambales. (See related stories).
Earlier this week, US and Philippine officials presided at the launching of the multi-million peso expansion and rehabilitation of the Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga, which will serve as one of the operations center of the US forces under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) of the two countries.
The Basa air base expansion includes widening of its air strip so that bigger airplanes could land and take off there.

The war drills will be participated in by 17,000 troops, the biggest since the drills started years ago. These will include 12,000 Americans and 5,000 Filipinos. In addition, troops from Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand will join the exercises.

Some members of the US forces joining the Balikatan drills arrived in the Philippines on March 20.

Col. Medel Aguilar, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP),  said the troops will first work on various humanitarian civic assistance programs before the annual military exercises formally begin April 11.

Both the AFP and the Australian Embassy earlier confirmed that around 100 members of the Australian Defence Force would be active participants in the war drills.

“Australia is proud to return as an active participant in Exercise Balikatan 2023. This is a significant activity that offers the opportunity for the Australian Defence Force to continue to work closely with our partners, particularly the Philippines and the US,” the Australian Embassy in Manila said in a statement.

“In 2023, Australian participation will be our strongest yet — with approximately 100 personnel from conventional and special forces participating in multiple scenarios throughout the Philippines, this includes field training and live fire activities.”

Japan, meanwhile, will deploy observers.

Tokyo and Manila are still in talks over the proposed establishment of a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) or a Status of Forces Agreement which would pave the way for more enhanced training and exercises between the two nations.

AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Andres Centino led a Philippine delegation to the Defense and Security Equipment International in Tokyo, Japan on March 14 to 17.

Earlier announcement by the Armed Forces indicated that the target vessel will be located 22 kilometers from Zambales or 185 kilometers from Panatag Shoal, the traditionally open fishing ground which China seized from the Philippines and controlled since 2012.

“We will be sinking a target vessel using a combination of artillery naval gunfire and aviation weapons… We will be firing HIMARS [High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System], a combination of Philippine Air Force and US Air Force rockets and bombs…,” Balikatan spokesperson Col. Michael Logico said during a briefing.