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Sun. May 19th, 2024

Australian and Filipino troops held exercises on Friday near flashpoint South China Sea waters claimed by China, with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos hailing them as an “extremely important” example of close cooperation.

China deploys hundreds of coast guard, navy and other vessels to patrol and militarize reefs in the South China Sea, which it claims almost entirely despite an international ruling that its position has no legal basis.

Friday’s joint drills took place at a naval base about 240 kilometers (150 miles) east of Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground that China seized from the Philippines in 2012 after a tense standoff.

“Considering that there have been so many events that attest to the volatility of the region, this kind of exercise, this kind of close strategic cooperation between countries around the region is extremely important,” Marcos told reporters.

“It is an important aspect of how we prepare for any eventuality,” he said of the drills, which he watched with Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles.

The air, sea and land drills, the first major joint exercise by the two countries, simulated retaking an enemy-controlled island.

About 1,200 Australian soldiers and 560 Filipino marines stormed a beach during the exercise, arriving in amphibious assault vehicles, by parachute and aboard US Osprey aircraft.

Two advanced Australian F-35 fighter jets provided close air support, and Australian warships secured the surrounding waters.

“We are committed to an idea of a world in which disputes are determined by reference to international law, and what we will do is bring our military capability to enhance the rules-based order,” Marles said at a news conference later.

“Peace is maintained through the protection of the global rules-based order,” he said, warning that order was now “under pressure”.

Marles and his Filipino counterpart Gilberto Teodoro also issued a joint statement on Friday indicating their intent to plan “bilateral joint patrols in the South China Sea… and other areas of mutual interest”.

Those expanded bilateral activities could eventually include “other countries committed to sustaining peace and security in our region,” they said.

This week’s exercises come after Chinese coast guard vessels fired water cannon and blocked a Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea on August 5.

The Philippine Navy deliberately grounded a World War II-era vessel on the shoal and set up a tiny garrison in 1999 to check China’s advance in the area.

On Tuesday, a second Philippine mission managed to deliver supplies to the outpost, though not before being chased and briefly blocked by Chinese vessels.

The Chinese coast guard said it had decided to allow the resupply on humanitarian grounds as the Philippine vessels “did not carry illegal building materials for large-scale reinforcements”.

The Philippines hosted a meeting this week with its fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China to negotiate a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

by Pamela CASTRO

©️ Agence France-Presse

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