MANILA (Reuters) - Thousands of Philippine and American soldiers began annual war games on Monday near disputed waters in the South China Sea, testing the readiness of the two oldest security allies in the southeast Asian region to respond to any emergency.
The Philippines has territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea, which is said to be rich in energy deposits and carries about $5 billion in ship-borne trade every year. The Spratlys in the South China Sea are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Nearly 5,000 U.S. and Filipino troops will participate in the 11-day annual exercise, to be held in the Philippines’ western island of Palawan, near the Spratlys, and in the northwest province of Zambales on the main island of Luzon, just 100 miles (160 km) off Scarborough Shoal.
The joint air and marine exercises “Philippine Bilateral Exercises,” or Phiblex, will focus more closely on maritime security and territorial defense operations as China continues to step up its presence and activities in the region.
“We’re hoping to gain new techniques from the U.S. marine corps,” Captain Reyson Talingdan, head of the public affairs of the Philippines’ 3rd Marine Brigade in Palawan, told reporters.
“If they have new doctrines, we’ll be able to learn from them.”
Two U.S. amphibious ships, USS Peleliu and USS Germantown, are participating in the exercises. Besides simulating boat raids and beach assaults, they will feature aerial live fire, mechanized armor maneuvers and parachute drops.
“The field training exercises will provide the Philippines and U.S marine units multiple opportunities to continue to improve their skills while sharing best practices and enhancing an already high level of cohesion,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement.
The military reported Beijing continued its reclamation work in four areas in the Spratlys despite the southwest monsoon.
China has expanded its territory in the Gaven, Johnson South, Cuarteron and Chigua reefs in the Spratlys, reclaiming land to build islands to assert its claims.
The Philippines has monitored the presence of more than 120 Chinese warships and fishing boats in the Spratlys in the first half of 2014, establishing firm control over disputed areas.
China seized control of Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop north of the Spratlys, in June 2012 after a three-month standoff with the Philippines, denying Filipino fishermen access to the rich fishing ground.
In the Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines has also reported the presence of an increasing number of ships, from 11 in the last quarter of 2013 to 34 in the first quarter this year.
The annual drills between Philippine and U.S. forces are being held under the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), part of a web of security alliances the United States built in the Asia-Pacific region during the Cold War.
Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez