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Filipinos decry four-nation military drill in South China Sea

The maritime exercise took place ahead of a trilateral summit next week in Washington
The 'Multilateral Maritime Cooperative Activity,' a joint maritime drill by Australia, the United States, Japan and the Philippines, in progress off the coast within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone on April 7.

The 'Multilateral Maritime Cooperative Activity,' a joint maritime drill by Australia, the United States, Japan and the Philippines, in progress off the coast within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone on April 7. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 08, 2024 11:33 AM GMT
Updated: April 08, 2024 11:48 AM GMT

Filipinos have expressed fear over the first-ever four-nation military drill in the South China Sea, a hotbed of tension between several Southeast Asian nations and a major global shipping route.

The first “Multilateral Maritime Cooperative Activity” involving defense wings of the United States, Australia, Japan and the Philippines concluded off Batanes Island near Taiwan on April 7.

"The military transformation of such an idyllic [Batanes] Island is highly deplorable and would escalate tension further in the South China Sea,” said lawmaker France Castro on April 7.

“It would make Batanes a target of attacks if China moves against Taiwan," added Castro, a teacher-turned-politician.

The US has roped in Japan and Australia as allies in its Indo-Pacific Strategy that aims to contain China, the second-largest economy.  Along with India, they form part of the QUAD, which China has called the ‘Asian NATO’.

Next week, US President Joe Biden will hold the first trilateral summit with Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington.

The military drill can take the Philippines into the theater of war in Southeast Asia, warned Castro.

The League of Filipino Students (LFS), the largest youth-led outfit in the Catholic-majority archipelago, urged the public to denounce the “interference” both by the US and China in the affairs of the Philippines.

“Let's not let the US and China turn our country into a war zone. Let's promote our national sovereignty together and push for a genuinely independent foreign policy,” the LFS said in a statement ahead of its protest at the Chinese embassy in the capital, Manila, on April 9, the National Day of Valor.

Progressive Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (the new patriotic alliance) noted that the drill “gives China an additional justification for more military activities.”

Under its nine-dash line, China maintains a claim to some 90 percent of the South China Sea—a major shipping route through which $3 trillion in goods move every year—despite overlapping claims by the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.

An international tribunal in 2016 refuted China’s claims, but Beijing continues to insist on the line’s legitimacy.

Last month, the Philippines and China had several maritime run-ins that saw the use of water cannons. Over 64 percent of China's maritime trade passes through the South China Sea.

"It is the Filipino fishermen who will bear the brunt of China’s retaliation against provocative naval drills," said Fernando Hicap, national chairperson of fishermen group Pamalakaya.

Hicap said on April 7 that “it has been proven that foreign military exercises did not dispel Chinese vessels from our territorial waters.”

However, Philippine senator Bato dela Rosa welcomed the naval exercise, saying, “China has been shamelessly making fools of us for a very long time.”

“So it’s better to involve bigger countries to increase our posture so we won’t always be humiliated,” Dela Rosa told reporters on April 7.

Since coming to power in 2022, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has improved ties with the US, rejecting his predecessor's pro-Beijing policies.

Marcos Jr. urged Filipinos not to show fear following the attack of China's coast guard against a Philippine ship on March 23.

There are effective ways of defending and asserting our sovereign rights,” noted Mong Palatino, secretary general of the Bayan.

Palatino added that the Philippines has to become “more aggressive and creative” in its diplomacy.

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