In the midst of South China Sea tensions, the United States and the Philippines are conducting the largest-ever joint exercise.

The Philippines and the United States began their largest joint military exercise, Balikatan, today (March 28).

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The exercise represents a strengthening of defence ties between the two countries in the context of new East Sea tensions.

These are the final military drills conducted by outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte. Previously, Mr. Duterte threatened to cancel exercises and a key military agreement with the United States (a longtime ally) as part of his “pivot” to China strategy.

President Rodrigo Duterte

The exercise, which involved nearly 9,000 Philippine and US troops, lasted 12 days and took place on the main Philippine island of Luzon.

The event was originally held annually but was canceled or postponed due to the development of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Speaking at the opening of the exercise in the capital Manila, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, General Andres Centino, said that the Balikatan exercise reflects the “deep alliance” between the two countries.

Major General Jay Bargeron, commander of the 3rd Marine Division, stressed that the “friendship and trust” between the two armed forces would allow the two countries to “succeed together in all military operations”.

The exercise will include maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire drills and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The two countries’ recent exercises have focused on potential conflict in the South China Sea, waters where China’s territorial claims overlap with the claims of many other countries.

The East Sea is a strategically important shipping route, worth trillions of dollars, and is believed to have large oil reserves.

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