The U.S. and the Philippines began their biggest-ever joint military drills a day after China concluded widespread combat exercises around Taiwan.
The annual Balikatan drills, which have taken place for the past three decades, will involve more than 17,600 troops from the U.S., the Philippines, and Australia.
Military exercises — including a live-fire drill that will, for the first time, sink a mock warship — will take place over the next two weeks in the South China Sea, where the Philippines and China have a long-running dispute over the ownership of the strategically important Spratly Islands.
The exercises follow an agreement for the U.S. to access four new bases near the Philippines, which face Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Manila has stressed that the U.S. cannot use them for offensive actions, with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. saying Monday that the bases are “only meant to help the Philippines should the need arise.”
The two countries will test their cyber defense, live-fire training, and humanitarian assistance plans, among other strategies.
U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Eric Austin told the Associated Press that the joint exercises will help the U.S. and the Philippines become “faster to respond to conflict, crisis, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
The joint maneuvers, which were planned in advance, began just a day after China wrapped up three days of drills in the Taiwan Strait. China’s drills began after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the U.S., where she met House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
China warned that it would retaliate if the meeting went ahead. On Monday, Taiwanese defense officials said they had detected 12 mainland warships and 91 jets around the island.
In a statement Tuesday, Tsai said that China was behaving irresponsibly with its drills, noting that it used her meeting with McCarthy as a pretext to begin its military maneuvers. “This is not the attitude of a responsible major nation in this region,” she said.
The drills will carry on until April 28.
Officials from both the U.S. and the Philippines have said that the drills shouldn’t be viewed as a development to China’s moves around Taiwan. However, they do have the potential to anger Beijing, who may view the exercises as a threat to its national security.