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U.S., Philippines kick off joint military exercises in tense South China Sea –

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1 of 3 | Armed Forces of the Philippines Gen. Romeo S. Brawner Jr. (L) shakes hands with U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. William M. Jurney during the opening ceremony of the Balikatan 2024 joint exercise at Camp Aguinaldo, Philippines on Monday. Photo by Lance Cpl. Erica Stanke/U.S. Marine Corps

April 22 (UPI) — The United States and the Philippines kicked off their most extensive joint military exercise ever on Monday, with drills scheduled in the tense South China Sea amid warnings from China over its territorial claims.

More than 16,000 members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the U.S. military will participate in the 39th annual Balikatan exercise, which runs until May 10 and will include a joint sail outside of the Philippines’ territorial waters for the first time.

“We have absolutely increased the scope, the scale and the complexity of the exercise across all domains,” U.S. exercise director Lt. Gen. William Jurney said at an opening ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.

“[The exercise] matters for regional peace and stability,” Jurney said. “When we increase our mutual response and defense capabilities, we strengthen our ability to promote regional security and protect our shared interests.”

Balikatan, which means “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Tagalog, will include live-fire missile launches and a boat-sinking drill in the South China Sea, where China has increased its use of water cannons and dangerous maneuvers in territorial faceoffs with Philippine vessels.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, a contention that an international tribune in The Hague rejected in 2016.

The exercise will also include training on maritime security, amphibious and aviation operations, cyber defense, counterterrorism, and disaster relief scenarios. The United States and the Philippines will be joined by the French navy for a trilateral maritime exercise held beyond the Philippines’ territorial waters for the first time.

“Together alongside our like-minded partners we are fully committed to upholding a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Philippine army Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said at the opening ceremony. “The ever-evolving nature of defense necessitates our adoption and transformation.”

China condemned the upcoming exercise last week, saying it would only serve to increase tensions in the region.

“The Philippines needs to be fully aware that when countries outside the region are brought into the South China Sea to flex muscles and stoke confrontation, tensions could get worse and the region will only become less stable,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian said at a press conference Wednesday.

Lin also objected to the movement of a U.S. missile system to the northern Philippines for the drills, which he called a “forward deployment at China’s doorstep to seek unilateral military advantage.”

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has looked to move closer to Washington after his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte hobbled the alliance in an effort to strengthen ties with Beijing.

Earlier this month U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for the countries’ first-ever trilateral summit, at which he said Washington’s commitment to the Philippines remains “ironclad” amid China’s assertion of power in the South China Sea.

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