The 'last' war games in the West PH Sea

ZAMBALES, Philippines (Updated) – Philippine and United States marines on Friday afternoon, October 7, played war games for what could be the last time in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), to show they could work together to defeat an invader of a Philippine island.

It was a display of American military hardware. From the sea, US landing dock USS Germantown pushed out 13 Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs) that rushed toward the shores of a naval base in Zambales province, north of Manila.

The AAVs whirred as they moved from water to sand and to the muddy terrain of the naval base. Each one carried 20 marines – 10 Filipinos and 10 Americans – assigned to clear specific areas of imagined enemies. 

White flares were fired to illuminate the imagined battlefield, and then green flares to signal the assault. The rifles crackled from a distance.

The maneuvers were repeated on and on to synchronize the militaries of the two longtime allies bound by the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to come to the aid of the other if its sovereignty was threatened. 

"This exercise between the Philippine Marine Corps and the US Marine Corps gives us the opportunity to increase our level of capabilities and capacity. Doing this jointly will enable us to respond to any scenario in the future," said Philippine Marines Public Affairs Office director Captain Ryan Lacuesta. 

"The marines on both sides love working together. The Philippines is a magnificent place to train and visit," said US Marine Major Roger Hollenbeck.

War games in Zambales are often linked to the maritime dispute over Scarborough Shoal, seen as a show of strength to deter China's aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Scarborough Shoal, a traditional Filipino fishing ground located less than 200 nautical miles from the coast of Zambales, is practically occupied by Chinese Coast Guard ships that shoo away fishermen of other nationalities. 

But the war games on Friday may be the last the Philippine and American forces will play on the West Philippine Sea if President Rodrigo Duterte sticks to his earlier pronouncement that this week's exercises will be the last because "China doesn't like them."

A few more war games will be conducted until Wednesday, October 12.

Duterte also put under review a military-to-military agreement forged by the previous Aquino administration, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, that seeks to increase US presence in the country. 

The Philippines has informed the US that joint patrols on disputed waters are already suspended, but plans for more war games continue pending clear instructions from Duterte. 

Duterte said he does not believe that the US will come to the aid of the Philippines if the West Philippine Sea dispute explodes into an armed conflict. Duterte said he would talk to China to ask them to allow Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal. 

The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that Scarborough Shoal is a common fishing ground, but China is ignoring the ruling. 

As Duterte seeks to demilitarize the West Philippine Sea, the US is now highlighting the value of these training exercises to humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

"What’s really important about this is it’s not just that we are projecting power, it's about the capability, and that capability, whether that’s used to fight an enemy or deliver supplies like we actually did in Louisina for Katrina," said Major Hollenbeck. 

"We use these AAVs to deliver supplies to affected areas. It’s about the integration, the planning together, doing that exercise together," Hollenbeck said. 

The Americans are hoping the war games will continue, said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

"When I talked to the Pacific Command in Hawaii last week, they still hoped that we’ll still continue with the exercises next year. We told them we will get definite guidelines from our president," said Lorenzana. – Rappler.com