MANILA (Reuters) - American and Filipino troops launched two weeks of annual naval drills on Monday amid a territorial stand-off between China and the Philippines as the United States seeks to reinforce its influence across the Asia-Pacific.
The most recent dispute between China and the Philippines entered its second week, with a Philippine coast guard ship and two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels faced off near the Scarborough shoal, west of a former U.S. navy base at Subic Bay, once the biggest outside the United States.
Chinese fishermen refused Manila’s request to hand over their haul, highlighting Manila’s powerlessness to confront its giant neighbour and its need to keep its main ally, the United States, sweet.
China has territorial disputes with several countries in the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas and is crossed by important shipping lanes.
China has sought to resolve the disputes one-on-one but there is concern among its neighbours over what some see as its growing assertiveness in staking its claims over the sea and various islands, reefs and shoals.
Philippine officials hope the war games, in which nearly 7,000 American and Filipino troops will simulate assaults for the first time in an area near the South China Sea, will become more frequent.
“We need the U.S. to bring stability and security,” said an army major-general who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the press.
Before the Philippines voted to remove U.S. bases in 1992, Chinese fishing boats kept clear of waters near the Scarborough shoal, the general said.
“After the Americans went, China erected structures in Mischief Reef and Chinese fishermen became more bold and active in Scarborough,” he said. “I don’t want to wake up one day seeing new Chinese structures there.”
After Manila failed to arrest the Chinese fishermen last week, Chinese surveillance ships stood their ground near the shoal and Chinese planes were seen circling on Saturday and Sunday.
“We hope the relevant countries can do more to contribute to regional peace and stability, and do more to enhance mutual trust,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters.
Richard Jacobson, of security consultancy Pacific Strategies and Assessments, said China’s only accomplishment in the dispute was to reinforce its image as a bully.
“I guess you can argue that it was an embarrassment for the Philippines,” Jacobson said. “It really underscores their lack of capacity to enforce their maritime enforcement issues.”
Aileen Baviera, of the Asian Centre at the University of the Philippines, said China’s actions were being shaped by the active U.S. interest in the region and the close Philippine-U.S. maritime security cooperation.
Twenty years after voting to remove the American bases, the Philippines wants to give U.S. troops more access to its ports and airfields to deter China’s growing assertiveness.
The defence and foreign secretaries of the two nations will hold a rare “two-plus-two” strategic dialogue in Washington on April 30, working to broaden relations.
U.S. President Barack Obama has sought to reassure Asian allies that the United States will stay a key player in the area, and the Pentagon has said it will “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region”.
China has repeatedly warned the United States over its arms sales to Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing calls an illegitimate breakaway from mainland sovereignty.
And China’s naval reach has extended as tensions over territorial claims have grown. China has advertised its long-term ambitions with shows of new hardware, including its first test flight of a stealth fighter jet and its launch of a fledgling aircraft carrier — both trials of technologies that remain years from deployment.
In this year’s “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) war games, U.S. commandos will supervise Filipino counterparts in a mock assault to re-take an oil platform from a terrorist group on Palawan.
The western island faces disputed areas of the South China Sea.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Sabrina Mao in Beijing; Editing by Rosemarie Francisco and Nick Macfie