Facing China, the Philippines and U.S. Join in Biggest Military Drill Yet

When China’s foreign minister visited the Philippines last weekend, he had a stern message for President Ferdinand E. Marcos Jr. of the Philippines: It was vital that Manila “properly handle issues” related to Taiwan and the South China Sea, and follow through on its earlier commitment not to choose sides, he said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Marcos turned up at the Philippines’ annual military drills with the United States dressed in an army fatigue jacket and closely inspecting an American rocket launcher. Later, he sat next to the American ambassador as they watched artillery units take out a target ship nearby.

It was the first time in a decade that a Philippine president had participated in these joint military exercises, and the message was unambiguous: After years of mostly tolerating China’s aggressive campaign of pressing territorial disputes with the Philippines, the Filipino government is again pivoting toward its oldest ally, the United States.

This desire to do so comes as relations between the United States and China have fallen to their lowest point in years. Across Asia, governments are increasingly anxious about these tensions, fearing, in particular, a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In Manila, there is heightened concern about what such an attack could mean for the Philippines, whose northernmost inhabited island is just 93 miles away from Taiwan.

The sinking of the ship on Wednesday — the first exercise of its kind in the Philippines — was the highlight of this year’s joint drills, called “Balikatan,” or shoulder to shoulder.

For two weeks, the militaries have trained all over the Philippines, including on the island of Basco, which faces the Bashi Channel, a waterway separating Taiwan and the Philippines. They represented the biggest gathering since joint exercises started 38 years ago, involving 12,200 soldiers from the United States and 5,400 Filipino troops.

The new nature of the joint exercises underscores a shift within the Philippines’ defense establishment. For years, the army saw its main threats as internal. Its soldiers fought a communist insurgency, and later, terrorist groups. But it is now reorienting itself toward a strategy of international defense after Mr. Marcos instructed the military in February not to “lose an inch of its territory.”

In an interview, Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., the commander of the Philippine Army, said that Russia’s attack on Ukraine served as an eye-opener.

“A lot of people were saying it’s impossible that Russia would invade Ukraine,” he said. “Anything is possible. So we have to prepare for that — any possible threat.”

The joint exercise was another major step toward security cooperation since the announcement early this year that the Philippines would give the U.S. military access to four new military staging sites in the country — three of them facing Taiwan and one facing the South China Sea.

General Brawner said that one of his priorities now is to figure out how to evacuate the 150,000 Filipino workers in Taiwan if war breaks out. Earlier this month, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, sparked outrage in the Philippines after he said that the government should “oppose ‘Taiwan independence’ rather than stoking the fire by offering the U.S. access to the military bases near the Taiwan Strait” if it cared about the Filipino workers in Taiwan.

Like several other Southeast Asian nations, the Philippines has been locked in decades-long disputes with China over resource-rich islands and vital fishing areas in the South China Sea. But Beijing’s push to occupy the reefs and shoals in the sea has arguably become a more galvanizing issue in the Philippines than anywhere else.

Many Filipino fishermen say they are constantly harassed by Chinese militia vessels and can no longer fish around the islands. A 2021 poll of 1,200 Filipinos showed that nearly half of them felt that the Philippine government was “not doing enough” on the South China Sea dispute. At that time, the former president, Rodrigo Duterte, had embraced China, saying he could not go into a battle he couldn’t win.

Euan Graham, a senior fellow for Indo-Pacific defense and strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said “what has changed is that the Philippines has concluded it needs the United States as the only realistic means of balancing against China.”

The Philippines’ defense budget for this year is only about $4.2 billion, and it has few of the high-powered weapons that China has. But it has acquired several Brahmos long-range missiles from India and two frigates from South Korea equipped with anti-ship missiles. Israel has supplied antiaircraft missiles.

More weapons could come. After the foreign and defense ministers of both the United States and the Philippines held talks earlier this month, Washington said it would commit to adopt “a security sector assistance road map” in the Philippines, which “will guide shared defense modernization investments.” Mr. Marcos is set to meet President Joe Biden next week in Washington.

Collin Koh, a research fellow and expert on maritime security in Southeast Asia, said that the Philippines could “help to complicate Chinese defense planning” in the South China Sea. “Even weaker actors can pull off certain victories,” he said, pointing to how Ukraine’s vastly outgunned military had shocked and stymied Russian forces over the past year.

In the event of an attack on the Philippines, General Brawner said his army “will defend it unilaterally at first, but then we will be expecting help from our allies and our partners.”

Although the United States and the Philippines are bound by a 1951 mutual defense treaty, many Filipino officials had long been skeptical about whether the United States would come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of a Chinese attack. Now, they say they are more reassured, especially after several visits by high-level U.S. officials.

Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Ryan, commander of the 25th U.S. Infantry Division, based in Hawaii, said the U.S. Army had a seminar with their Philippine counterparts in Manila in late February, during which the Filipinos “discussed their concept for the defense of the Philippines” if it were to come under attack from China.

“They presented that to us because they wanted us to see it,” General Ryan said by telephone. “And I believe they also wanted us to understand it in the event that they were calling us to ask for our assistance.”

General Ryan said this was an example of a significant change in the attitude of his counterparts in the Philippines. “This is an area where two years ago, they were not open to this level of dialogue with us about this particular topic,” he said.

Most polls show that Filipinos are overwhelmingly pro-American, and the ties go back to the Philippines’ history as an American territory from 1898 to 1946. Several nationalist groups have expressed anger that the Philippines is being caught up in a geopolitical contest that is not of their choosing. But a survey conducted late last year by Pulse Asia, a polling firm, showed that 84 percent of Filipinos believe that the Marcos administration should work with the United States to defend Philippine sovereignty in the South China Sea.

General Brawner said that when the United States had bases in the Philippines, he felt a sense of security from seeing the streaks of American jets in the skies. But the shutdown of these bases — at Subic Bay and Clark Air Base — in the early 1990s coincided with “some of the claimants” in the South China Sea becoming more aggressive.

He said that he invited Charles Flynn, the commander of the U.S. Army Pacific, to the island of Corregidor earlier this month, where, as part of a tour, they both looked at the American guns that were supplied to the Philippines in the early 1900s. That prompted General Flynn to remark that the Americans were already preparing for a war that took place four decades later, according to General Brawner.

“So he said: ‘This could be history repeating itself,’” General Brawner said.

Jason Gutierrez and Camille Elemia contributed reporting.

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