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MANILA (AFP) – The Philippines and the United States began their largest-ever joint military drills in the archipelago nation on Monday, signaling a deepening of defense ties amid renewed tensions in the disputed South China Sea.

The war games are the last under outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, who previously threatened to scrap the exercises and sign a key military deal with longtime ally the United States as he pivots toward China.

About 9,000 Filipino and American soldiers will take part in the 12-day training program on the main island of Luzon, which is usually an annual affair but was canceled or scaled back during the pandemic.

Philippine military chief General Andres Centino said at the opening ceremony in Manila that the biggest round of the Balikatan war games reflected the “deepening alliance” between the two countries.

US Major General Jay Bargeron said the “friendship and trust” between their respective armed forces would allow them to be “successful in all military operations together”.

The exercises will include maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire training and counter-terrorism as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Recent maneuvers between the two countries have focused on a potential conflict in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely.

Duterte has moved closer to China since taking power in 2016, but has faced pushback from the Filipino public and military concerns over Beijing’s territorial ambitions in the water.

Trillions of dollars in trade pass through the strategic sea, and it is believed to contain abundant petroleum reserves, making it a frequent source of regional friction.

China has ignored a 2016 ruling by the Hague-based Permanent Court that its historic claim is baseless.

They have strengthened their position by building artificial islands on some disputed rocks and installing weapons on them.

Tension increases

The future of the war games was thrown into doubt after Duterte announced in February 2020 that he planned to overturn the Visiting Forces Treaty, which provides the legal framework for the United States to conduct joint military exercises and operations in the Philippines.

But he reversed the decision last July, as tensions between Manila and Beijing escalated in the South China Sea after hundreds of Chinese boats were found anchored on a reef in the Philippines.

On the eve of the joint drills, the Philippine Coast Guard accused its Chinese counterpart of driving one of its ships within meters of a Filipino patrol boat near the disputed Scarborough Shoal – a flashpoint between the two countries.

The exercises will include maritime security, amphibious operations, live fire training and counter-terrorism as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. JAM STA ROSA AFP

It comes weeks after Manila confronted Beijing’s ambassador over a Chinese navy ship that was “loitering” in waters off the Philippine archipelago.

The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to media requests for comment on the war games.

But on the Scarborough Shoal incident, China’s foreign ministry on Monday urged Philippine ships to “sincerely respect China’s sovereignty” over the area.

The exercise is taking place in the shadow of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The US and its allies continue to supply Kiev with defensive weapons and impose economic sanctions on Moscow.

Duterte, whose six-year term ends in June, has expressed concern that the Philippines is “participating” in the conflict because of its security alliance with the United States.

It includes a mutual defense agreement and permission for the US military to store defense equipment and supplies at several Philippine bases.