Secretary of the Army John McHugh, left, and Philippine army Brig. Gen. Gerado Layug are greeted with official honors during their arrival at the Western Mindanao Command (WMC) at Camp General Navarro in Zamboanga City, Philippines. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ryan Valverde/Released)

Nearly 7,000 American and Filipino troops began annual military exercises Monday that will include combat drills near disputed South China Sea waters.

U.S. and Philippine officials stressed that China, which in the past has protested military exercises involving American forces near the contested region, was not an imaginary target in the drills.

They said the Balikatan — Tagalog for shoulder-to-shoulder — exercises would mostly focus on humanitarian missions and disaster preparedness but would also include combat maneuvers including the mock retaking of an oil rig supposedly seized by terrorists near the South China Sea.

Source: Jim Gomez for the Associated Press via

…in addition…

U.S. military officials say at 4,500 this is the largest number of American troops who will participate in annual war games with the Philippine military. They are joining 2,300 Filipino troops. In speeches during the opening ceremonies of the two-week event, called “balikatan” or shoulder-to-shoulder in Filipino, officials from both countries reaffirmed their commitment to upholding their mutual defense partnership.

Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Jesse Dellosa, said while the partnership has helped with the country’s response to internal threats, there still remains a “shadow of doubt” in the country’s ability to handle certain international issues – a reference to the territorial dispute with China.

“Given the international situation we are in, I say that this exercise, in connection with all those that we have had in the past, is a timely and mutually beneficial event for us and our U.S. counterparts,” he said.

Last week, the Philippine Navy discovered at least eight Chinese fishing vessels near Scarborough Shoal, which Manila says is well within its exclusive economic zone. Officials say the boats held endangered marine resources such as giant clams and live sharks and they tried to make arrests and confiscate the contraband.

Source: Simone Orendain for Voice of America.

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