MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines hailed the start of major war games with the United States on Monday as a timely boost to the two nations' military alliance amid growing regional security challenges.
More than 6,000 Filipino and US soldiers will take part in the 12 days of exercises across the Philippines, which come as the host nation is embroiled in an escalating dispute with China over rival claims to the South China Sea.
In a speech at the opening ceremony for the exercises in Manila, Philippines' armed forces chief Jessie Dellosa did not specifically mention China but said the war games highlighted strong US support for its weaker ally.
"Given the international situation we are in, I say that this exercise, in coordination with all those we had in the past, (is) timely and mutually beneficial," Dellosa said.
"The conduct of this annual event reflects the aspirations to further relations with our strategic ally, a commitment that has to be nurtured especially in the context of the evolving challenges in the region."
The Philippines has over the past year made repeated public calls for closer military ties with the United States, its former colonial ruler and longtime ally, as part of its strategy to deal with China over their maritime dispute.
China and Taiwan claim nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.
The competing claims have for decades made the sea -- where there are shipping routes vital for global trade and which is believed to hold huge deposits of fossil fuels -- a potential flashpoint for military conflict.
While diplomatic efforts have largely kept the dispute from flaring into violence over recent decades, the Philippines and Vietnam said last year that China was becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claim to the sea.
The Philippines accused Chinese vessels of firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen, harassing an oil exploration vessel and laying markers in areas close to Philippine landmass.
Tensions spiked again last week when the Philippines sent its biggest warship to a tiny shoal about 230 kilometres (140 miles) west of the county's main island of Luzon where eight Chinese fishing boats had been seen.
China deployed three vessels to stop Philippine personnel from arresting the fishermen, and the dispute escalated with both countries launching protests and trading accusations that the other was violating their sovereign territory.
While the fishing boats left Scarborough Shoal over the weekend, both nations are continuing to assert their sovereignty over the area, which is many hundreds of kilometres from the nearest major Chinese landmass.
The Philippine government has sought to emphasise the Balikatan exercises have nothing to do with the Scarborough Shoal dispute and there is no reason for the war games to provoke China.
However the Philippine military has confirmed some of the drills will be held just off the western coast of Palawan in waters facing the South China Sea.
The Balikatan exercises are also being held as the United States is rebuilding its military presence across the Asia Pacific, partly to counter the growing political, economic and military might of China.
China has criticised the US move, with the Chinese defence ministry describing it as proof of a "Cold War mentality".
However Philippine President Benigno Aquino told AFP last month he was willing to help the US in this context by allowing more joint exercises such as Balikatan.
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