In a joint military exercise, nearly 7,000 US and Philippine forces have begun South China Sea drills amid growing maritime tensions between Manila and Beijing over a disputed shoal.
In the wake of the recent naval standoff over the Scarborough Shoal between Philippines and China, a Philippine military spokesman said that the exercises were unrelated to events at the Shoal, which the Filipinos refer to as the Panatag Shoal, the Associated Press reported.
The focus of the exercises would be on “improving security, counter-terrorism and humanitarian and disaster response,” Major Emmanuel Garcia said, adding that the drill will include combat maneuvers involving the mock retaking of an oil rig supposedly seized by terrorists near the South China Sea by US-backed Filipino troops.
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Beijing has protested the joint exercise, although it is happening in a different region, which is to the southwest of the disputed rocky reefs.
At the heart of the confrontation between the Asian nations, over the resource-rich region, is China’s assertion that the islands and waters of the South China Sea, which Manila now calls the West Philippines Sea, was first discovered in the 13th century by a Chinese emperor. Though a Chinese spokesperson recently denied historicity as the reason for the claim, he maintained that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over all the islands and waters in the South China Sea.
“China’s position on the South China Sea issue is consistent and clear. China has indisputable sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea as well as their adjacent waters,” China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei said during a press meet on Feb. 29.
“At the core of the South China Sea dispute are the territorial sovereignty dispute over some of the Nansha Islands and the demarcation dispute over part of the waters of the South China Sea. What should be pointed out is that neither China nor any other country lays claim to the entire South China Sea. We are not sure whether it is because of their unawareness of facts or it is out of their ulterior motives that some people keep making irresponsible remarks on this issue,” he said.
China’s growing maritime influence in the region has neighboring nations including Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan worried over territorial confrontations.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including what is recognized by the UN as the Exclusive Economic Zone of other neighbors, according to reports.
Analysts say South China Sea is increasingly being perceived as something akin to the Persian Gulf. “Aside from the issue of sovereignty, energy security is also a major factor behind these competing claims,” veteran Filipino journalist Chito Sta. Romana writes. He says the growing tensions between China and the US in the Asian region provides a “strategic context that complicates the regional situation,” adding that it is “difficult to expect an end to this diplomatic tug-of-war in the near future.”
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