This week, military forces from the U.S., the Philippines, and Japan are taking part in joint exercises in the Philippines. These military drills come at a time when relations between the Philippines and China are at a low point over Chinese actions in the disputed South China Sea. While serving training purposes, these exercises also show a commitment by the U.S. to support its ally, the Philippines, while it reveals an attempt by the Japanese to further its own relationship with that country.
China – The Exercises
The drills being conducted are part of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training 2015 (CARAT) exercise. CARAT exercises have been held annually since 1995 by the U.S. navy Pacific Fleet with states from ASEAN with the intent to improve training, cooperation, and readiness.
CARAT Philippines is taking place from June 22 to 26 off of Palawan Island in the Philippines and the U.S. has sent the new littoral combat ship, USS Fort Worth, the rescue and salvage ship, USNS Safeguard, and P-3 Orion aircraft to take part. The Philippines are contributing two frigates, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar and BRP Ramon Alcaraz along with a corvette.
The two frigates, former U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton class cutters were acquired by the Philippine Navy within the past few years and are the largest combatants in the Philippine Navy. It should also be noted that in May, the USS Fort Worth was approached by a Chinese warship while conducting patrols in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, the Japanese are holding separate CARAT drills with the Philippine military in the same area thus marking the second time both countries have held joint drills. The Japanese have sent two P-3 Orion’s which are typically used for maritime surveillance though Japanese officials have said that surveillance activity is not intended for the drill.
Regardless, on both Tuesday and Wednesday, a Japanese P-3 flew near disputed South China Sea waters resulting in criticism from China though the Philippine government has stressed that the drills are not meant to provoke China. Some are arguing that flights such as these will become the norm in the coming years with Japan gaining an active presence in the South China Sea in monitoring Chinese activity. The Chinese have already warned the Japanese to stay out of the South China Sea.
China aside – Japan-Philippines Relations
Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has been making considerable strides towards a more active foreign policy. Over the past few months, a good deal of effort has been directed towards improving relations with the Philippines. At the Tokyo summit on June 4th, Japan and the Philippines made considerable steps to securing a better relationship with each other and establishing military cooperation.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and PM Abe agreed to an accord for the transfer of defense equipment and technology in the fields of disaster relief and maritime security. It was at this summit that it was announced that Japan would provide the Philippines with 10 patrol vessels for its coast guard; ships like this are needed to counter increased Chinese maritime activity in the South China Sea. Plans for the current military exercises were also drawn up at the time.
Some members of the Philippine government have criticized the exercises with Japan arguing that they are unconstitutional and a violation of Philippine sovereignty though these dissenters are few in number. The truth is the Philippine military is weak and underequipped in the face of a superior Chinese military and any assistance is greatly needed. The Philippines need to expand their defense relations beyond that which they have with the U.S. and that is where Japan comes into play. There is considerable support for the exercises and continued defense engagement with Japan with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin coming out in strong defense of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Japan.
Recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea have caused concern not only to other claimant nations but to the international community as well. Though recently announcing that its island building campaign would soon be coming to an end, the fact remains that the Chinese have still managed to reclaim over 2,000 acres of land on what were in some cases nothing more than barren outcroppings of rock.
This has allowed them to expand military facilities and even construct airfields in the middle of the disputed area thus giving them a military advantage against lesser equipped claimant countries, such as the Philippines. Exercises such as those seen this week in CARAT are necessary to show that a country like the Philippines will not allow the Chinese to overrun the South China Sea unchecked. Furthermore, this week is seeing Japan further incorporating itself into the South China Sea dispute of which it must be said, Japan has no claims.