The navies of the Philippines, the United States, Japan and India on Thursday carried out their first joint naval exercise in the disputed South China Sea waters where China has allegedly occupied many disputed territories.
Five vessels of the four participating countries navigated through international waters to Changi in east Singapore bordering the contested South China Sea.
The second phase of the naval drill, ASEAN-Plus Defense Meeting-Plus Combined Maritime Exercise, took place in Changi after the first round was conducted in Busan in South Korea, the Philippine Navy said in a statement.
This is the first time that the four countries have taken part in joint drills in these disputed waters. The six-day exercise began on May 3.
The combined show of naval might comes at a moment of heightened tensions in the trade war between China and the US – the two world powers locked in a tussle for the commercial control of South China Sea, which serves as a passage for annual trade worth $3.5 trillion.
“The group sail showed the active participation of the Philippine Navy as it strengthens its relationships with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region," Roy Vincent Trinidad, the navy captain who led the Philippine delegation, said in the statement.
The drills included a guided missile destroyer from the US Pacific Fleet, Japanese aircraft carrier Izumo, Indian destroyer INS Kolkata and tanker INS Shakti and Philippine patrol vessel Andres Bonifacio.
“Our bond of friendship with our regional partners is as strong as our commitment to maintain peace and stability and region," said Jerry Garrido, the commander of BRP Andres Bonifacio.
The Indian navy also tweeted about the drills and posted pictures of the warships that participated in the six-day long group sail.
The region has witnessed the growing influence of Beijing in the waters of South China Sea where China started occupying a number of islets and shoals in 2012 and allegedly constructed artificial islands to appropriate the territories.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan dispute the sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea – an area which accounts for 12 percent of global fishing and through which 30 percent of the world's trade passes, apart from housing possible oil and gas reserve.
The US and China both compete to extend influence over the Pacific. Washington is unwilling to let Beijing take over the area vital for its geo-strategic importance.
To counter Chinese dominance, the US seeks to place 60 percent of its naval fleet in the Pacific by 2020, for which it needs to reinforce its military alliance with the Philippines.
The defense and strategic partnership between the US and its historic ally in Southeast Asia is guided by the Mutual Defense Treaty signed between the countries in 1951.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in the matter in 2016, recognizing its sovereignty over several territories in the region, including Scarborough atoll and a section of the Spratly archipelago. But Beijing has refused to recognize the verdict.