US, Philippines set joint military exercises

The Philippines said Wednesday it would hold large-scale military exercises with the United States next month near an area where it is locked in a tense sea territorial row with China.

The manoeuvres, an annual event which this year will involve nearly 7,000 troops, will reinforce the close military ties between the longtime allies, armed forces chief Lieutenant General Jessie Dellosa said.

"The cooperation between the two armed forces manifests the unswerving dedication and commitment of our security forces towards a more stable and secure Asia-Pacific region," Dellosa said in a statement.

About 4,500 US troops will join 2,300 Filipino counterparts in various exercises on the main island of Luzon and in Palawan from April 16 to 27.

Palawan is an island on the Philippines' southwest coast facing the South China Sea.

China and Taiwan claim all of the South China Sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims to parts of it.

The territorial dispute over the waters, which are believed to sit atop vast deposits of gas and oil, has for decades been regarded as one of Asia's potential military flashpoints.

Tensions rose last year after the Philippines and Vietnam accused China of becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claims.

The Philippines alleged last year that Chinese vessels fired on Filipino fishermen and harassed an oil exploration vessel in its waters.

The Philippines responded by calling for stepped-up military ties with the United States, triggering an angry response from China which does not want American involvement in the dispute.

The Philippine military declined to say exactly where in Palawan, or which waters off the island, that next month's military exercises would take place.

"There are different places of engagements (in Palawan)," Major Emmanuel Garcia, spokesman for the Philippine contingent, told AFP, refusing to name specific locations.

China claims waters close to the western edge of Palawan. However waters to the eastern side of Palawan are uncontested by China.

The US embassy in Manila said in a statement the exercises would include computer simulated command post drills, multiple field exercises, as well as medical, engineering, humanitarian and civic activities.

The exercises are called Balikatan, a Filipino word meaning shoulder-to-shoulder.

Twenty participants from other Southeast Asian countries are also expected to take part in the drills, the US embassy statement said.

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