Philippines, US to hold military drills in islands facing South China Sea, Taiwan

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The Philippines and the US will carry out annual military exercises next month in key locations including Philippine islands facing the South China Sea and Taiwan, as tensions with China in the region continue to simmer.

The exercises, called Balikatan or “shoulder-to-shoulder”, will move away from sprawling military camps in the countryside to locations in northern and western regions, Philippine army colonel Michael Logico told a briefing on Tuesday.

The move is consistent with the shift in the country's focus from internal to external defense.

This year's exercises, which a Philippine diplomat previously said could be larger than last year's 17,000-strong drills, will also focus on cybersecurity training and “information warfare”.

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Batanes, the island province closest to Taiwan, could again be one of this year's exercise venues, Logico said, but he stressed the activities will not focus on the democratically governed island.

“It is natural for us to exercise in those areas because if it's part of Philippine territory, it is where we wave our flag, these are the areas where we defend,” Logico said.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory despite the island's rejection and routinely stages air and naval military operations near the island.

The exercises will also include areas in Palawan province in the South China Sea where frequent maritime run-ins between Manila and Beijing have occurred over the past year.

“These are locations that we can adequately perform joint operations,” Logico said.

The Philippines on Tuesday accused China's coast guard of carrying out “dangerous manoeuvres” that led to a collision between its coast guard ship and a Chinese vessel during a resupply mission for Philippine troops in the South China Sea.

Like last year, Logico said militaries from both countries will conduct a ship sinking exercise.

Ties between Washington and Manila have warmed under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who last year almost doubled the bases American troops can access under a defense pact.

Australian troops will also join the exercises while the French navy are participating for the first time, Logico said. France and the Philippines are both seeking authority to negotiate a military agreement.

Philippine armed forces spokesperson Francel Margareth Padilla said the exercises will be from the third week of April to the first week of May.

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