MANILA, Philippines – The navies of the Philippines, the US, and Japan began on Monday, October 14, a weeklong series of joint exercises based off Palawan, the Philippine province nearest the contentious West Philippine Sea.
In a ceremony in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, the Philippine Navy, the US Navy, and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) formally opened the third iteration of the Maritime Training Activity (MTA) Sama-Sama (altogether), which used to be called Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT).
This is Japan’s first time to join its strategic allies, the Philippines and the US, in the yearly drills.
Sailors from the 3 countries will work together on both shore-based and at-sea activities “designed to allow participating navies to undertake complex maritime training utilizing diverse naval platforms and operating areas,” the US Pacific Fleet said in a statement.
Shore based activities include maritime domain awareness, force protection, medical care, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, explosive ordnance disposal, dive-and-salvage operations, engineering, aviation, as well as visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) operations.
At sea, the 3 navies will do VBSS drills, division tactics, a search and rescue exercise, helicopter deck landing qualifications, anti-air and surface warfare tracking, and vessel-of-interest tracking.
“The MTA Sama-Sama is one of the very important training exercises as it provides an avenue for the participants to develop and enhance joint interoperability to respond to regional crises,” said Major General Dante Hidalgo, Vice Commander of the Philippine Navy.
"We are strongest when we sail together…. We train together, so that together we can face threats to maritime security,” said US Navy Rear Admiral Joey Tynch, who oversees security cooperation for the U.S. Navy in Southeast Asia.
"Any time we can execute realistic, combined scenarios with our partners, it goes a long [way] to make us better and more effective together," said Captain Ann McCann, deputy commodore of Destroyer Squadron 7.
The US Navy is deploying the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery, the dock landing ship USS Germantown, the expeditionary fast transport USNS Millinocket, the salvage ship USNS Salvor, the US Coast Guard cutter USCG Stratton, and a P-8A Poseidon aircraft.
The USS Montgomery, meanwhile, is on a rotational deployment to the Indo-Pacific region. It visited Davao City in July 2019.
The Philippine contingent will reportedly include the offshore patrol vessel BRP Andres Bonifacio.
The Philippines and the US regularly hold joint military exercises based on agreements anchored to their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. (READ: US reaffirms pact to defend PH in case of West Philippine Sea attack)
Other regional allies like Japan have either observed or participated in the exercises.
The Philippines faces a security threat from China, which claims a large portion of the West Philippine Sea as its sovereign territory despite an arbitral ruling based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that debunks that claim and affirms the Philippines’ sovereign rights to the strategic and resource-rich waters.
The US Navy has been patrolling the area more frequently to assert the freedom of navigation and overflight afforded by international law, while the US government has become increasingly vocal in criticizing China’s actions that “destabilize” the region’s security.
Despite opposition from several Southeast Asian countries laying overlapping claims over parts of the broader South China Sea, China has militarized its installations built on reclaimed reefs, some within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
In the absence of a credible military deterrent from the Philippines, joint naval patrols with international allies “help assert the Philippines’ arbitral victory in the West Philippine Sea,” according to Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who had helped build the Philippines’ landmark maritime case. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.