Over 200 US and Philippine marines conducted a mock amphibious assault on a beach on Sunday near a South China Sea shoal disputed by China and the Philippines.
US Marine Brigadier General Craig Timberlake remarked that the exercise would allow both militaries to jointly cooperate in a range of scenarios, including disaster response, but he refused to discuss whether the annual exercise, which has been staged for 28 years, was now being held in part to address concerns by Asian countries such as the Philippines over Chinese expanding naval power. China has previously protested over such exercises near disputed regions of the South China Sea.
Both the US and the Philippines have said that the exercises were not targeted at China or any country as an imaginary target, with Brig Gen Timberlake saying that " [t]he long-term objective is to have better inter-operability between the two militaries."
The Philippines, a US defence ally, is depending on Washington to help modernise its aging naval fleet. Philippine officials have said the government is looking at buying more arms to improve patrols in its territorial waters and safeguard its claims over the Spratly Islands which are also being claimed by China and four other countries. The Philippines and Vietnam have accused China’s vessels of disturbing their oil and gas exploration ventures as well as their fishermen within their respective exclusive economic zones.
Report: US, Filipino marines hold combat drill near South China Sea shoal disputed by Beijing, Manila (Washington Post, 23 Oct 2011)
Meanwhile, Philippine military forces Monday have launched their first air strike in three years on separatist rebels in southern part of the country.
The Philippine Air Force bombarded the rebel encampment of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in a town within Zamboanga Sibugay province. The military said the aerial attacks were part of the offensive against the rebels responsible for last week’s attacks on the military and police in the region, which left 35 people dead.
Army officials insisted that they were only targeting a fugitive faction of the MILF. Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang "I would like to stress the rebels we are after are operating outside the control of the MILF leadership."
Philippine President Benigno Aquino is under pressure to end a ceasefire with the rebels, but says he wants to seek a peaceful resolution. He said the military action was targeted against those behind the recent spate of violence and warned other rebel units not to join in the fighting. He has also rejected calls for an all-out war.
At least one government soldier and six rebels have been reported dead as a result of Monday's operations. There were no reports of any civilian casualties.
Fighting in the southern Philippines has been continuing for over thirty years, costing tens of thousands of lives. Another rebel group, the Abu Sayyaf, has resumed its attacks while the MILF has been on ceasefire.
Report: Philippine military bombs southern Muslim rebels (BBC, 24 Oct 2011)
Report: Military Launches Airstrike On MILF Rebels In Southern Philippines (Bernama, 24 Oct 2011)