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China keeps pressure on Philippines despite US ally

This year’s annual Balikatan joint military exercises between the Philippines and the United States (April 22-May 10) broke much new ground. So did China’s response to it. The exercise areas and the arms deployed showed the linkage of South China Sea and Taiwan Strait hotspots. A surge in Chinese vessel presence in Manila’s western exclusive economic zone and another violent sea incident over a contested reef expose Beijing’s defiance amid the alliance’s show of force.

The display of strength and the reaction to it escalated tensions in choppy waters and raised questions about the drill’s deterrent value. The symbolism and messages show how parties are digging in, accepting more risk and shrinking the space for diplomacy.

Expanded and evolved show of allies’ force

The 39th Balikatan exercise was billed as the “most effective, most ambitious and most complicated” yet. It built on advances made in recent editions of the annual drill, which had become a laboratory for testing new defense concepts and weapons in the field.

In 2022, US-made Patriot missiles were amphibiously inserted by land and sea in Cagayan, one of the Philippines’ northernmost provinces opposite Taiwan.

Last year, live-fire demonstrations of Patriot and Avenger missiles occurred in Zambales, a coastal province facing the West Philippine Sea. For the first time, a sinking exercise (SINKEX) was also conducted with a decommissioned corvette as a mock target hit by volleys from land, air, and sea platforms. The event was also held off Zambales, 235 kilometers from Scarborough Shoal, a contested feature between Manila and Beijing.

This year, it was the turn of the Typhon ground-based missile, with a range of 1600 kilometers, to appear in a joint army