September 5, 2023
MANILA – The navies of the Philippines and the United States sailed together in the West Philippine Sea off Palawan province on Monday, resuming an activity put on hold during the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte who sought warmer ties with China.
The Philippine Navy’s guided-missile frigate BRP Jose Rizal (FF-150) and US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Ralph Johnson (DDG-114) conducted a “bilateral sail” west of Palawan as part of a “robust maritime cooperation,” the Armed Forces of the Philippines said in a statement.
The two warships under the AFP Western Command and the US Navy 7th Fleet carried out division tactics exercises, which involved steaming together in different formations, communication exercises and various maneuvers, the AFP said.
“This event aims to provide an opportunity for the Philippine Navy and the US Indo-Pacific Navy to test and refine existing maritime doctrine and demonstrate their defense capabilities in line with the shared commitment of upholding peace and security in the Indo-Pacific Region,” it added.
The AFP said the activity was conducted under the Mutual Defense Board–Security Engagement Board framework that “aims to develop operational interoperability” between the two navies.
Sources said exercises were held outside the country’s territorial sea and within the contiguous zone – or up to 44 kilometers off the coast – where a state can enforce its laws on some specific matters.
The territorial sea is 22.2 kms (12 nautical miles) while the contiguous zone is 44.4 kms (24 nautical miles) from the shore.
A People’s Liberation Army (Navy) ship, DDG-161, was over the horizon while the Philippine and US navies trained together, two officials privy to the operation told the Inquirer. The officials declined to be named for lack of authority to speak to reporters.
The USS Ralph Johnson last month assisted Filipino fishermen in distress in the South China Sea, according to the US Navy.
The joint sail on Monday came amid renewed tensions between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea after a Chinese coast guard vessel used water cannons to block and drive away Philippine boats delivering supplies to troops in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal on Aug. 5.
Philippine vessels, however, were able to deliver supplies nearly three weeks after the incident but were still harassed by the Chinese coast guard and militia.
Prior to the recent incidents, Philippine vessels had been regularly harassed and intimidated by Chinese ships while conducting patrols within the country’s 370-km exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The United States takes no position in the territorial disputes but it has consistently expressed support for its treaty ally in the face of China’s continued harassment in the West Philippine Sea. The United States has also pledged to defend the Philippines in case of an armed attack as it would invoke the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a vital waterway that carries the world’s imports and exports. The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
Beijing has ignored a 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s sweeping claims to most of the critical waterway and upheld Philippine sovereignty over its EEZ.
Last week, the Philippines filed a protest over China’s new map that lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea and called on Beijing to abide by its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Award.
Aside from the United States, the Philippines has been engaging in joint military exercises with other allies in a bid to keep China’s aggression in check.
On Aug. 14, Manila and Canberra kicked off their largest military exercises called “Alon,” which is part of Indo-Pacific Endeavor, Australia’s flagship international engagement activity in the Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean regions.
Alon 2023 was the first bilateral amphibious exercise between the Philippines and Australia.
Japan’s de facto aircraft carrier JS Izumo (DDH-183) and destroyer JS Samidare (DD-106) also took part in the first quadrilateral joint exercises with the Philippines, United States and Australia aimed at strengthening cooperation.