Over the next two weeks, the Philippines armed forces will hold joint exercises with hundreds of US soldiers amid growing tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea.
According to Arab News, nearly 1,700 Filipino and American military personnel will take part in the joint exercises.
Unlike in previous years, the Balikatan exercises 2021 (BK-21) will not be open to the public as part of safety protocols to limit the spread of coronavirus.
"The exercises officially start tomorrow and will last for about two weeks," Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told reporters on Sunday.
"We will be conducting (the exercises), but it will be different from previous years because of the pandemic. There will be a virtual (portion) of the exercise," he said.
The opening ceremonies for BK-21 will be held at the AFP General Headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on Monday, Sobejana said, adding that 700 American and 1,000 Filipino troops would take part.
This year's resumption of the annual BK-21 event, which was called off last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, follows a phone call between the two countries' defence chiefs on Sunday to "reaffirm their shared commitment to the US-Philippines alliance".
In a statement, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said that US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin III and his Filipino counterpart Delfin Lorenzana "discussed the situation in the South China Sea, and the recent massing of People's Republic of China maritime militia vessels at Juan Felipe (Whitsun) Reef".
The defence and foreign affairs ministries in the Philippines have been up in arms for a fortnight over the presence of 220 fishing boats suspected to be manned by Chinese maritime militia at Whitsun Reef, with statements flying back and forth over the alleged incursion into the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
Secretary of Philippines Foreign Affairs Teddy Locsin Jnr said last Wednesday he was "firing off another diplomatic protest" to China's embassy and would continue objecting "every day until the last one's gone like it should be by now if it is really fishing".
Even after such an intensifying row, China hasn't shown any sign of relocation of the vessels. Instead, they have accused the Philippines of using a 2016 international tribunal ruling, which deprived China of certain outcrops of territorial-generating status, the ruling from the permanent court of arbitration effectively punches holes in China's all-encompassing "nine-dash" line that stretches deep into the South China Sea, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.
The 2016 International Tribunal Ruling denies China of its thousand years of fishing rights in the area.
Meanwhile, the United States has reminded China of Washington's treaty obligations to the Philippines in the event of an attack in the waters.
"An armed attack against the Philippines' armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
The Whitsun Reef belongs to the Spratly archipelago, the territory of which is claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
China considers the Spratly archipelago to be its territory, despite the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, which said there was no legal basis for China's maritime claims. The arbitration proceeding was initiated by the Philippines in January 2013, Sputnik reported.
( With inputs from ANI )
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