LUBANG ISLAND: Philippine and US troops on Wednesday (Apr 10) conducted their first joint airfield seizure drill on an island adjacent to the South China Sea, aimed at helping the Southeast Asian country deal with any potential island invasion.
The show of force by the nearly century-old military alliance comes amid warnings by the Philippines' military that hundreds of Chinese vessels had "swarmed" the Manila-held Thitu - also known as Pagasa - island in the South China Sea.
READ: Philippines' Duterte warns China to back off disputed island
Also claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan, Thitu is located in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
"If they [Filipinos] were to have any small islands taken over by a foreign military, this is definitely a dress rehearsal that can be used in the future," Major Christopher Bolz, a US Army Special Forces Company Commander who took part in planning for the exercises, told CNA.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines Special Operations Command - or AFP-SOCOM - had asked the United States in 2018 for the joint airfield seizure drill.
"We requested this training basically upon recognising during the assessment that this is one of the gaps," Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Pondanera, commander of the exercise control group with the AFP-SOCOM, told CNA.
The exercise was part of the counterterrorism operations training in this year's 12-day series of joint military drills between the Philippines and the United States.
Participating military officials of both countries said the island invasion scenario also prepares the Philippines for other present-day high-risk situations.
The Philippines and the United States signed a mutual defence treaty in 1951.
"I think the scenario is very realistic, especially for an island nation such as the Philippines," Major Bolz explained of the drills.
"The Armed Forces of the Philippines must be ready to any eventualities," AFP-SOCOM's Lt-Col Pondanera added.
Created in April 2018, the AFP-SOCOM combines the capabilities of the Philippines' special forces working across land, air and sea. The group had only done the drill once in 2018 prior to the joint exercise with American forces.
ISLAND AS TRAINING GROUND
The relatively untouched island of Lubang in the Philippines’ western edge - endowed with dive spots, white sand beaches, and clear blue waters with abundant marine life - was turned into a practice venue for possible clashes for a day.
Civilians, including children, watched part of the exercises from afar.
While the US committed last March to support the Philippines should the latter be attacked on maritime territories, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte admits the country does not have the needed military might to go to war with China.
He had warned China of sending Philippine troops on what he called “suicide missions” if China dared to touch Thitu island.
The airfield seizure drill is just one of the exercises in the yearly series of joint military drills of the alliance conducted across the Philippines. The drills are dubbed as Balikatan, a Filipino term that means "shoulder-to-shoulder."
US Marine Corps Brigadier-General Christopher McPhillips, US Exercise Director, called the annual exercises "one of the premier military training events in the Pacific hemisphere", that has "helped us to maintain regional stability, uphold international norms, combat violent extremism, alleviate human suffering, and much more".
This year's Balikatan is a step up from the drills in 2017, which saw the first Balikatan under President Duterte when the exercises were scaled down to exclude maritime operations.
The president had also threatened to permanently abort the drills at that time, but relations between the Philippines and the US have since improved.
During his visit to Manila last March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines of its commitment to the two countries' defence pact.
However, Philippine Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana is still calling for a review of the said mutual defence treaty.
Mr Duterte's famous pivot to Russia and China is interpreted by his aides as the establishment of an "independent foreign policy," citing supposed reliance in the past to traditional partners like the United States.
On Apr 8, in the middle of Balikatan, large anti-submarine ships from the Pacific Fleet of Russia docked in the Philippines for a five-day goodwill visit, during which the Philippines and Russia conducted joint naval drills. This is the second such visit this year.
On Apr 23, the Philippines is also expected to participate in a fleet review in China in time for the anniversary of the Chinese Navy.
According to Philippine Navy spokesperson Captain Jonathan Zata, the tentative plan is to send a delegation of around 500 with a task force commander aboard the Philippine ship BRP Tarlac. The ship was also part of a fleet review in South Korea in 2018.
Mr Lorenzana said the country is participating “upon the invitation” of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
Despite warming ties with Russia and China, the Philippines still considers the US its only military ally.
Philippine and US troops have fought alongside each other during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.