Philippines, US to hold war games off disputed shoal

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Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The Philippines and the United States will hold joint naval exercises off Panatag Shoal (Scarbourough Shoal), a reef in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) claimed by both the Philippines and China and site of a maritime standoff between the two countries that lasted more than two months last year.

But the Philippines and the US do not expect China to raise its hackles, as the joint manoeuvres will be held in waters between Panatag Shoal (also known as Bajo de Masinloc) and the Luzon mainland, about 108 kilometres east of the disputed reef.

That is "very far" from Panatag Shoal, about the distance between Manila and Tarlac, so China cannot view it as an act of "intimidation", said Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Fabic, spokesperson for the Philippine Navy.

Moreover, holding the naval exercises off northern Luzon had been planned long before the Philippines' standoff with China at the reef last year, Fabic said.

The joint naval manoeuvres will be held from June 27 to July 2.

Standoff continues

Technically, the Philippines and China are still in a standoff in the area. Philippine vessels withdrew at the height of a typhoon in mid-June last year to ease tensions at the shoal.

But the Chinese ships never left the area, cordoning off the mouth of the shoal's lagoon to prevent entry of fishing boats from other countries.

As it has no capability to drive off the Chinese vessels by force, the Philippines took the dispute to the United Nations in January for arbitration.

The Philippines and China also have rival claims in the Spratly archipelago, a scattering of islets, reefs and atolls in the middle of the West Philippine Sea believed to be sitting atop vast energy resources.

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the Spratlys in rivalry with China, which claims nearly all of the sea as its territory.

Called Cooperation Afloat Readiness Training (Carat), the naval manoeuvres are a "five-year planned exercise" with the US Navy that began in 2011 and goes around the different naval forces commands in the country, Fabic said.

It was just a coincidence that Carat will be held this year in northern Luzon near Panatag Shoal, he added.

Carat was held in the Naval Forces Eastern Mindanao in Davao last year. It will be in the Naval Forces West in Palawan next year and in the Naval Forces Eastern Mindanao in Davao in 2015, he said.

Exercises with allies

The US Pacific Fleet conducts Carat with the armed forces of its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, East Timor and the Philippines.

"This aims to enhance the Philippine Navy and US Navy capabilities in naval operations through exchanges and tactical exercises," Fabic said.

The exchanges, he said, include communications, naval surface operations, counterterrorism and maritime security operations, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations.

Taking part in the naval exercise are an unspecified number of Philippine and US naval vessels, Marine companies, the Philippine Naval Special Operations Group, Naval Construction Brigade or the Sea Bees Engineers and Philippine Coast Guard vessels, aircraft and diving and special operations teams.

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