By JIM GOMEZ AND AARON FAVILA
SAN ANTONIO, Philippines (AP) — U.S. and Philippine forces attacked a ship with a barrage of high-precision rockets, airstrikes and artillery fire in their biggest warfare exercises Wednesday in Philippine waters off the disputed South China Sea that it would probably antagonize China.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. watched the US show of firepower from an observation tower in the coastal city of San Antonio in the northwestern province of Zambales, the latest sign of his strong support for the Philippines. alliance treaty with the US
Marcos has ordered his military to shift its focus to external defense from decades-long battles against insurgency like China. increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea has become a major concern. The shift in the Philippines’ defense approach is in line with the Biden administration’s goal of bolstering an arc of alliances in the Indo-Pacific region to better counter China.
China has angered the Philippines by repeatedly harassing their navy and coast guard patrols and scaring away fishermen in the waters off the Philippine coast but which Beijing claims as its own. The Philippines has lodged more than 200 diplomatic protests against China since last year, including at least 77 since Marcos took office in June.
Sitting next to US Ambassador MaryKay Carlson and her top defense and security advisers, Marcos used a pair of binoculars, smiling and nodding, as rockets streaked across the blue sky from the US High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. , or HIMARS, a multiple launcher for rockets and missiles. mounted on a truck that has become a crucial weapon for Ukrainian troops fighting Russian invasion forces.
The coastal clearing off Marcos looked like a smoke-shrouded war zone, rumbled with artillery fire as AH-64 Apache attack helicopters hovered overhead.
A private plane flew past during the exercises, briefly disrupting them, and was asked to move away, said Col. Mike Logico, the Philippine military spokesman for the exercises. He has advised fishermen to stay away from the area.
“This training increased the realism and complexity of the exercise, a key priority shared between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Armed Forces of the United States,” said Lt. Gen. William Jurney, commander of the Marine Corps Forces of the US in the Pacific.
“Together we are strengthening our capabilities in full-spectrum military operations in all domains,” said Jurney, US director of the annual joint exercises called Balikatan, Tagalog for “shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Some 12,200 US military, 5,400 Philippine forces and 111 Australian counterparts took part in the exercises, the largest since Balikatan began three decades ago. The drills have shown US warships, fighter jets, as well as Patriot missiles, HIMARS and anti-tank javelins, according to US and Philippine military officials.
The ship attacked by the allied forces was a decommissioned Philippine navy warship, which was towed some 18 to 22 kilometers (11 to 14 miles) out to sea.
Smaller floating targets, including empty drums strapped together, were also used as targets to simulate a battle scene where a US Marine Corps command and control center allowed scattered allied forces to identify and locate enemy targets and then fire rockets and precision missiles.
Philippine military officials said the drills would bolster the country’s coastal defense and disaster response capabilities and were not directed at any country. China has opposed military exercises involving US forces in the region in the past, as well as increased US military deployments, which it warned would increase tensions and hamper regional stability and peace.
Washington and Beijing have been on a collision course over China’s increasingly assertive actions to defend its vast territorial claims in the South China Sea and Beijing’s goal of annexing Taiwan, by force if necessary.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said Monday that China’s Shandong aircraft carrier group was also conducting training 120 nautical miles (222 kilometers) southeast of the island’s southern tip.
In February, Marcos approved a largest US military presence in the Philippines by allowing rotating batches of US forces to stay at four more Philippine military camps. That was a sharp departure from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who feared that a larger US military footprint could antagonize Beijing.
China strongly opposed the move, which would allow US forces to set up operating bases and lookout posts in the northern Philippines across the sea from Taiwan and in the western Philippine provinces facing the South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually all of it.
China has warned that a deepening security alliance between Washington and Manila and their ongoing military exercises should not harm its security and territorial interests or interfere in territorial disputes.
China’s Foreign Ministry has said that such military cooperation “should not target any third party and should lead to regional peace and stability.”
Gomez reported from Manila. Associated Press writer Joeal Calupitan contributed to this report.