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The US and the Philippines have started joint air and sea patrols in the South China Sea, the latest step in the two allies’ efforts to strengthen military co-operation amid growing tension with Beijing in the disputed waters.
“This significant initiative is a testament to our commitment to bolster the interoperability of our military forces,” Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr wrote in a post on social media site X on Tuesday announcing the joint patrol, the first conducted with the US in seven years.
The move comes as Manila and Beijing are embroiled in an increasingly heated stand-off over the Philippine military’s regular resupply missions to its outpost on Second Thomas Shoal, a sandbank in the South China Sea that is also claimed by China.
Beijing’s attempts to disrupt the resupply missions prompted a warning from US President Joe Biden last month that “any attack on Filipino aircraft, vessels or armed forces” would invoke Washington’s mutual defence treaty with the Philippines.
The joint patrol, which will run until Thursday, will test efforts agreed less than a week ago by Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to stabilise US-China relations and resume bilateral military communications.
Defence officials of the US and the Philippines, its oldest military ally in Asia, agreed in February to resume joint patrols in the South China Sea which Marcos’s predecessor Rodrigo Duterte suspended in 2016.
The first joint patrol kicked off on Tuesday near the island of Mavulis, the northernmost point of Philippine territory in the Bashi Channel just 100km south of Taiwan, and will move west into the South China Sea.
Unlike the maritime patrols Duterte ended, the current event involves aircraft. The Philippine military said it was sending three navy ships and three warplanes, and they would be joined by a US Navy littoral combat ship and a maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft.
The expanded patrols come as Marcos has shifted Manila’s stance from his predecessor’s focus on building ties with China to defending his country’s interests against what he calls Chinese encroachment. That push has resulted in a sharp increase in joint exercises with the US and new agreements giving US forces access to Philippine bases close to Taiwan, moves fiercely protested by China.
China claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety. After militarising several islets and atolls there over the past decade, it has drastically increased the use of its coastguard and other vessels to patrol the area and disrupt the maritime activities of rival claimants to it.
Beijing has also stepped up military manoeuvres in the Bashi Channel and other areas around Taiwan, which it claims as part of its territory too.
The Chinese military has repeatedly accused Washington of disrupting regional peace and stability with its military presence and demanded the US military stop patrols in waters and airspace close to its coasts and other territory it claims.
The US Navy’s Japan-based Seventh Fleet said its forces routinely operated with allies and partners “in defence of the rules-based international order”.
“We look forward to the opportunity to join with our Philippine allies for this maritime co-operative activity,” the fleet said.