15:51 GMT18 May 2021
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    In a move that could be interpreted as a warning to China, the Philippines is set to hold separate naval exercises with US and Japanese navies not far from the hotly disputed Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea.

    The two-week-long exercises with the US began last week off the east coast of Palwan Island, just 100 miles from the Spratly islands, according to US Navy spokesman Arlo Abrahamson, and will run until June 26. The exercises will overlap with drills held by the Philippines and Japanese navies around the same island through June 27.

    The joint drill with the US will include a sea phase with the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth, a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and at least one Philippine frigate.  The exercises with Japan will take place adjacent to the Spratly islands and Tokyo will send a P-3C anti-submarine, maritime surveillance aircraft, along with 20 personnel.

    According to an unnamed official speaking to Reuters, there are no plans for the three countries to combine the exercises on Palwan Island, but the drills may intersect because Manila has limited naval vessels.

    "At some point all three forces could merge in one activity because we only have two ships and limited aircraft to take part in these exercises."

    The exercises mark an escalation in the security cooperation between Manila, which has one of the weakest and most poorly equipped navies in Asia, and the US and regional allies in the face of a perceived Chinese threat.

    The Philippines has accused Beijing of overstepping its sovereignty over the hotly contested South China Sea through its land building efforts. China, however, maintains that the construction efforts are within the scope of its rights.

    While the Philippines trains regularly with the US, the country held its first joint naval drills with Japan in May. And though Tokyo has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, it is concerned about becoming isolated should China dominate the waterway that sees much of Japan’s ship-borne trade.

    China’s official Xinhua news agency condemned what it referred to as Japan’s "meddling."

    "By muddying the waters in the South China Sea, Tokyo also aims to divert increasingly intensive global attention on Japan’s lack of remorse over its atrocities during World War II," The channel’s English language commentary said.


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