MANILA, Philippines — More than 11,500 American and Filipino military personnel launched one of their largest annual combat exercises Monday amid growing alarm over massive land reclamation by China in disputed South China Sea territories.
Philippine military officials said the “Balikatan,” or shoulder-to-shoulder, maneuvers, which involve more than 90 aircraft and ships, were not directed at China. But the venue of some of the war games in waters facing the disputed region and a focus on territorial defense appear to link the exercises to the long-simmering conflict.
More than 120 Philippine and U.S. Marines will be deployed from an amphibious attack vessel Tuesday to simulate the re-taking of an island occupied by enemy forces in northwestern Zambales province, Filipino officials said. There will be live-fire and search and rescue drills as well as civic work in other areas.
China seized control of a shoal off Zambales after a standoff with Philippine ships three years ago. Incensed, the Philippines challenged the validity of China’s vast territorial claims before an international arbitration tribunal in 2013, straining ties.