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China sounds warning after Philippines and US announce most expansive military drills yet

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Philippine and US forces will carry out their first ever military exercises outside the south-east Asian country’s territorial waters, in a move China has said will only lead to greater insecurity in the South China Sea.

The annual Balikatan or “shoulder-to-shoulder” drills – which will run from 22 April to 10 May – will involve 16,700 soldiers simulating retaking enemy-occupied islands in areas facing Taiwan and the South China Sea.

It will be the first time the maritime exercises are carried out beyond Philippine territorial waters, according to Michael Logico, a Philippine army colonel overseeing the exercises. It will also be the first time the Philippine Coast Guard has taken part in military exercises. The coast guard has increasingly been at the forefront of clashes with China, particularly around the disputed Second Thomas Shoal.

In response to the planned drills, China’s foreign ministry warned that the Philippines should be “sober enough to realise” that bringing in external countries to show off their force in the South China Sea and provoke confrontation will only aggravate tensions and undermine regional stability.

“Attempts to bring in external forces to safeguard its so-called security will only lead to greater insecurity for itself,” ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said at a scheduled news conference, urging both countries to stop provocation.

Chinese state media was also critical of the drills, which they said would have a “destructive impact on regional security”.

On Thursday the Philippines’ foreign ministry said its decision to strengthen ties with Japan and the US was a “sovereign choice”, and urged China to “reflect upon its own actions” in the South China Sea.

“The source of tension in our region is well known to all,” the ministry said in a statement.

“It is China’s excessive maritime claims and aggressive behaviour, including its militarisation of reclaimed features, that are undermining regional peace and stability and raising tensions.”

Logico said US troops and their Philippine counterparts will simulate retaking islands occupied by hostile forces in the northernmost islands of the country, close to Taiwan and in the western Palawan province facing the South China Sea.

More than 16,700 Filipino and US troops will take part. On Thursday Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesperson Rear Adm Armando Balilo said six PCG vessels would take part for the first time. In previous years they have only patrolled the perimeter to keep out other parties.

A small French contingent will join this year’s drills for the first time since the annual exercise began in 1991, deploying a frigate that will sail jointly with Philippines and US naval vessels in Manila’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

About 14 nations will join as observers, including Japan, India and countries in Asean and the European Union, Logico said.

Aimed at improving communication and coordination between the US and Philippine militaries, the drills come against the backdrop of recent aggressive behaviour from Beijing in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, flashpoints for Chinese and US tensions.

The so-called “gray-zone” harassment by China has included shining military-grade lasers at the Philippine Coast Guard, firing water cannon at vessels and ramming into Philippine ships running resupply missions near the Second Thomas Shoal, which both Manila and Beijing claim. Some Filipino crew have been injured in the clashes.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea despite a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that found Beijing’s sweeping claims had no legal basis.

Last week, Joe Biden pledged to defend the Philippines from any attack in the South China Sea, as he hosted the first joint summit with Manila and Tokyo amid growing tensions with Beijing.

On Thursday, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi kicked off a tour of south-east Asia that will see him visit Indonesia, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.

Indonesia’s president-elect Prabowo Subianto visited China at the beginning of April, where President Xi Jinping praised their ties and laid out a vision for regional peace. China is one of the biggest sources of foreign direct investment in Indonesia and has poured billions of dollars into projects in the country.

Wang will finish the tour in Papua New Guinea, where in recent years Beijing has tried to chip away at US and Australian influence.

Chi Hui Lin, Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

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