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New US, old PH ships test synergy

/ 05:36 AM June 27, 2011

It’s a show of force that’s likely to raise the hackles of China—and elicit chuckles from the Asian military giant as well.

State-of-the-art US missile destroyers will join aging Philippine warships for naval exercises this week in what has been touted as a timely show of unity as tensions with China escalate over a maritime dispute in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

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The 11-day exercise—named Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (Carat)—start on Tuesday off the southwest Philippine island of Palawan in the Sulu Sea, close to the disputed waters of the West Philippines Sea, where Manila has complained of increasing Chinese provocation.

The United States will send 800 sailors and two guided missile destroyers, plus a diving and salvage ship, to the 17th staging of the Carat exercise, the US military said in a press release.

Highlighting the disparity between the military capabilities of the two allies, the Philippine Navy said it would deploy two World War II-vintage vessels armed only with cannon for the exercise.

About 300 Philippine sailors will take part, according to the Navy spokesperson, Lt. Noel Cadigal.

For its part, China plans to hold in July an initial sea trial of its first aircraft carrier—a refurbished aircraft carrier of the defunct Soviet Union.

Analysts say the Chinese aircraft carrier’s move toward operability raises the stakes for Washington, long the undisputed naval power in Asia, and jangles the edgy nerves of China’s neighbors, which are upset with what they see as Beijing’s more assertive posture in enforcing claims to disputed territories.

Some comfort for PH

But while the Philippine Navy may be no match to its Chinese counterpart in a one-on-one engagement, the annual Carat exercise nevertheless offers Manila some comfort shortly after it appealed to its long-time ally and former colonial power for help in containing Beijing’s aggressive stance, according to some analysts.

“The exercises show that the Philippines and the US are still very close. They (Philippine leaders) hope that the Chinese will be impressed by this,” said Ben Lim, a political science professor at Ateneo de Manila University.

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“It will give the Philippines confidence in regard to diplomatic leverage. When they meet the Chinese again in peaceful negotiations, they can say, ‘The Americans are on our side,’” Lim added.

Nevertheless, both Manila and Washington have emphasized that the Carat exercise is part of long-term US efforts to help the Philippine military.

“The US and Philippine navies have a long history of working together, and exercises like (these) provide a great venue for us to hone our skills and increase our interoperability,” said Capt. David Welch, the US Carat commander.

Intrusions

The Philippines has in recent months complained of Chinese actions in the strategically vital and potentially resource-rich body of water.

Manila refers to the body of water as the West Philippine Sea, while Beijing calls it the South China Sea.

The Philippines and China—along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam—claim all or part of the West Philippine Sea, and the area has long been considered one of Asia’s potential military flash points.

President Aquino this month accused China of inciting at least seven incidents recently, including one in which a Chinese vessel allegedly opened fire on Filipino fishermen.

Mr. Aquino accused China of breaking international law by intruding within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer (200-nautical-mile) economic exclusion zone, and called on the United States for help in defending his country’s claims against China.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario last week traveled to Washington, where he won some backing from the United States as the superpower offered to help modernize the cash-strapped Philippine military.

“We are determined and committed to supporting the defense of the Philippines,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a joint news conference with Del Rosario.

No specifics were immediately announced, but Del Rosario later said that US authorities had vowed to help boost the Philippines’ intelligence capabilities in the disputed waters.

US-Viet exercises

Over the past year, China has seen a flare-up in territorial spats not only with the Philippines but also with Vietnam and Japan—all of which have turned to Washington for support.

The United States is scheduled to stage similar exercises with Vietnam next month, although it has insisted they too have nothing to do with tensions in the disputed area.

Vietnam has made accusations similar to those of the Philippines over alleged Chinese actions in the West Philippine Sea recently. Hanoi refers to the body of water as the East Sea.

Amid the spike in tensions, China has repeatedly said it wants to solve the territorial disputes peacefully while warning the United States it has no role to play in the spats. AFP

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TAGS: 11-day exercise, Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (Carat), maritime dispute, Spratly Islands, warships, West Philippine Sea
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