By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief
MANILA/WASHINGTON – The United States and the Philippines have launched expanded war exercises with new “Sama Sama” training and drills on Philippine shore, land and sea participated by several allies like the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Australia and France triggering new tensions with China.
The exercises spearheaded by the US and Philippine navies and Marines comes just a week after the Philippine Coast Guard removed a Beijing-ordered floating barrier that was obstructing Filipino fishing vessels from accessing a shoal 150 miles off the west coast of the Philippines and a fishing boat was rammed by a foreign tanker at Scarborough Shoal killing three fishermen. (See related stories.)
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. defended the removal of the China floating barriers as Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. equated Chinese behavior in the region to that of a schoolyard bully.
“Exercise Samasama” (Together) which is also joined by New Zealand, Indonesia and Malaysia kicked off on Oct. 2 and ends on Oct. 13 in the waters of Manila and Naval Forces Southern Luzon, said Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., adding it highlights the country’s efforts to leverage its alliances to improve its territorial defense capabilities.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines earlier said “Exercise Samasama” aims to further improve maritime integration and combined interoperability with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF), Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), and the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy (RN) through subject-matter expert exchanges (SMEEs) and humanitarian assistance and disaster response table-top events.
“Basically, when it comes to territorial defense we cannot do it alone. So we have to leverage our alliances and our partnerships with like-minded nations. So that’s what we are doing. And ‘Exercise Samasama’ is one of the venues by which we can do that, leveraging our alliances and partnerships,” Brawner said.
Officially called by US as Maritime Training Activity Sama Sama 2023, it is the seventh and largest iteration of the drills as participants from Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the United Kingdom and Malaysia join the US and the Philippines, according to the US Navy.
The exercises off the Philippine coast will include drills on anti-submarine, surface and air warfare as well as land phases, the US Navy added.
“Exercise SAMASAMA is about enhancing interoperability, fostering regional cooperation, and tackling non-traditional challenges that transcend our borders,” Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Toribio Adaci Jr. said during the opening ceremony at the Philippine Navy Headquarters in Manila.
“From territorial defense to countering transnational crimes, SAMASAMA equips us to face an array of threats together,” he added.
For his part, US 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Karl Thomas said, “It is really important that we all recognize that the global maritime commons are used by everybody and everybody wants maritime global commons to be free and open.”
“When we do exercises like SAMASAMA, it allows us to really focus our efforts to improve across all of the countries, across all of the navies.”
For the Philippines, BRP Antonio Luna (FF151), an AW109 naval helicopter, C-90 aircraft, and a Naval Special Operations Unit will participate during the sea phase of the exercise. War ships of US, Canada and others will join in the other exercises.
Capt. Sean Lewis, commodore of the US Navy’s Destroyer Squadron 7, said of the war drills: “Together we can address a spectrum of security threats and enhance interoperability and with more nations participating than ever before, we can increase innovation and build a ready, united force that ensures stability in the region.”
Prior to the war exercises, Lindsey Ford, deputy assistant secretary of the US Defense Department, assured before the US House of Representatives that th US will “surely invoke” its Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the Philippines if an armed attack against the country’s “assets, including those of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), is committed in the South China Sea.”
Ford gave the assurance before the US House of Representatives, which tackled China’s continued aggression in the waters, including laser pointing and water cannon attacks against Philippine personnel.
“The [Defense] department has been incredibly clear when it comes to our treaty commitments to the Philippines,” Ford told Rep. Young Kim of California, who also heads the subcommittee on Indo-Pacific of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“We have said repeatedly and will continue to say that we stand by those commitments,” Ford said as Kim raised criticisms of the US’s commitment to the Philippines.
Ford noted the “credibility” of Washington’s military partnership with Manila, which she described as “a bedrock part” of the US’ security in the Indo-Pacific and globally.
Aside from securing the US military foothold in the Philippines through the nine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites across the country, Ford said Washington is also helping an American company operating in Subic in operating a shipyard it sees as a “critical strategic infrastructure.”
“The fact that US companies are cooperating and helping to build jobs and make sure that that strategic area stays in friendly hands, I think, is incredibly important,” Ford added.
In the same congressional hearing, Vice Admiral Andrew Tiongson, US Coast Guard Pacific Area commander, said that the PCG has “our largest security sector assistance program with them.”
President Marcos has pledged that his administration will continue to defend the Philippines’ maritime territory as well as the rights of Filipino fisherfolk.
Marcos made the vow as he justified his recent order to remove the floating barriers installed by the China Coast Guard in the southeast entrance of Scarborough Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc.
Marcos said he would assert the country’s rights over Philippine waters, but clarified that he is not picking a fight with China.
“Hindi tayo naghahanap ng gulo. Basta gagawin natin, patuloy nating ipagtatanggol ang Pilipinas, ang maritime territory ng Pilipinas, ang mga karapatan ng mga fishermen natin na mangisda doon sa mga areas kung saan sila nangingisda daang-daang taon na (We are not looking for trouble. What we will do is continue defending the Philippines, the maritime territory of the Philippines, the rights of our fishermen who have been fishing there for hundreds of years),” he said.
“Kaya’t hindi ko maintindihan bakit nagbago ng ganito. Basta’t kagaya ng sabi ko, umiiwas nga tayo sa gulo, umiiwas tayo sa mga maiinit na salita ngunit matibay ang ating pagdepensa sa teritoryo ng Pilipinas (So I don’t understand why it changed like this. But as I said, we avoid trouble, we avoid heated exchange but our defense of Philippine territory is strong),” Marcos added.
Marcos said the removal of floating barriers at Bajo de Masinloc would enable local fisherfolk to increase their catch.
He added that he would not allow foreign entities to put up a barrier “that is within the Philippines.”
“But in terms of taking down the barrier, I don’t see what else we could do dahil talaga ‘yung mga fishermen, noong pinutol ‘yong tali, ‘yung mga nakapasok na fishermen noong araw na ‘yun, nakahuli sila ng 164 tons na isda. So, sa isang araw pa lang ‘yun (because the fishermen, when the barrier was removed, the fishermen who entered that day, they caught 164 tons of fish. So, that’s just in one day),” he said.
Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin said the Philippine government is “seriously” studying the case buildup against China, in the wake of its installation of floating barriers at Bajo de Masinloc.
Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said the Philippine government’s legal team is determining the proper complaint that will be filed against China, most likely before the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) or other bodies such as the International Court of Justice.
Bajo de Masinloc is an integral part of the Philippines over which it has sovereignty and territorial jurisdiction, according to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
On July 12, 2016, the PCA affirmed Bajo de Masinloc as a traditional fishing ground of Filipino fisherfolk.
“These actions demonstrate a pattern of increasingly risky and coercive behavior, a manifestation of PRC’s growing willingness to use its military instrument of power to achieve its foreign policy objectives,” she said.
Ford pointed out that China, over the past decades, added “more than 3,200 acres of land to its seven occupied outposts” in the Spratlys, which now feature airfields, berthing areas, and resupply facilities.
Since 2018, she said, China has “steadily equipped its Spratly Island outposts, including Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross, with an increasing array of military capabilities.”
Ford said China uses these outposts “to support People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) vessels, People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployments, and China Coast Guard (CCG) operations in the South China Sea, including routine harassment of Southeast Asian nations’ vessels and assets, undermining these nations’ sovereign rights under international law.”
“We’ve witnessed a sharp uptick in coercive and risky operational behavior by the PRC, threatening the safety not only of US forces but of allied and partner forces operating in the South China Sea,” she said.
Rep. Young Kim of California’s 40th congressional district, chair of the House Subcommittee on Indo-Pacific, said she has witnessed the situation over the disputed waters and agrees that the US must support the small littoral states in the region.
Kim last month led a bipartisan congressional delegation to the Philippines and flew on a mission with the US Navy over the South China Sea.