SAN ANTONIO, Zambales - Japanese troops stormed a beach in the Philippines Saturday in joint exercises with US and Filipino troops that officials said marked the first time Tokyo's armored vehicles rolled on foreign soil since World War II.
The small Japanese contingent played a humanitarian support role in the drill after US and Filipino marines made an amphibious landing to retake Philippine territory from a "terrorist" group during the simulation.
Fifty unarmed Japanese soldiers in camouflage marched behind their four armored vehicles and picked up Filipino and American troops playing the role of wounded combatants while moving inland over sand and sparse bushland.
The exercise, code-named Kamandag (Venom), marked the first time Japanese armored military vehicles were used on foreign soil since the country adopted a pacifist constitution after its 1945 defeat, said Japan's Major Koki Inoue.
Both the United States and Japan used to occupy the Philippines and were on opposite sides during World War 2.
"Our purpose is to improve our operational capability and this is a very good opportunity for us to improve our humanitarian assistance and disaster relief training," Inoue said, adding that Japan was not involved in the drill's combat component.
The exercise was held at a Philippine navy base facing the South China Sea some 250 kilometers from the Scarborough Shoal, a territory claimed by Manila that was seized by Beijing during a 2012 naval stand-off.
The two are among six claimants to the resource-rich South China Sea.
China has ignored the Philippines' landmark victory before an international tribunal in 2016, where the court declared its nine-dash line claim over nearly all of the waters invalid. It has instead continued militarization and island-building activities.
The Philippines has ramped up military cooperation with Washington, its long-time ally, and also held joint naval exercises with Japan near Scarborough Shoal in 2015.
Japan has its own maritime territorial dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea.
The US military stressed that Saturday's exercise was not aimed at China, which has also built artificial islands on disputed areas of the South China Sea and installed military facilities on them.
"It has nothing to do with a foreign nation or any sort of foreign army. This is exclusively counter-terrorism within the Philippines," US Marine communications officer 1st Lt. Zack Doherty told AFP.
About 150 US, Filipino and Japanese troops took part in Saturday's landing, Doherty added.
This year's 10-day Kamandag exercises finish on Wednesday.