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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Sending a Message to China

Oct. 13, 2015

Troops in the Philippines have been training with partners from the United States. Members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces observed. The exercises played out through Friday on a Philippine coastline that faces disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Those islands are the focal point of tension over an increasingly assertive Chinese presence. NHK World's Charmaine Deogracias reports on the joint military drills and the message they likely send to Beijing.

Combined elements of the Philippines and the US Marines will simulate special operations in a littoral environment to exercise their interoperability in amphibious boat raids.

The joint military drills began this month in the Philippines along the South China Sea. About 2,000 marines from the 2 countries took part in a variety of training exercises, including one simulating the retaking of an island from enemy forces.

The Philippines is now hurriedly stepping up its military cooperation with the United States and boosting its naval power. Behind this move is a sense of crisis over China's increasing presence in the South China Sea. China has been conducting a series of landfill projects in the disputed Spratly Islands -- and building facilities on the reclaimed land.

An analysis by a research institute announced late last month showed that China has completed a 3,000-meter airstrip in the islands. That's long enough for military aircraft. Once the runway goes into operation, China will have a base for military activities very close to the Philippines.

Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez of the Philippine Navy says it's a cause for alarm and concern not only for the Philippines, but also for all other countries that are benefiting in the South China Sea. He says the presence of the United States in the region gives them confidence that the nation will help them.

The Philippine government is taking measures to counter China's increasing activity. Oyster Bay is on the western Philippine island of Palawan, just over 100 kilometers from an area where China has reclaimed land on reefs. The Philippine government plans to build on existing facilities there, and create a large vessel port and a heliport.

A road to the new base is being hastily built. The Philippine military is considering sharing the base with the US military to monitor China's maritime activities.

The Philippines is also strengthening its ties with Japan. Philippine President Benigno Aquino visited Japan in June and agreed to start talks on the transfer of defense equipment and technology.

Shortly afterwards, Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Philippine Navy conducted their first full-scale joint drill in the South China Sea. Japan deployed P3C patrol aircraft. The 2 countries confirmed coordination between their units.

This time, the JSDF dispatched a team to observe the joint exercise by US and Philippine forces. The Philippines hopes to work with Japan for security in the South China Sea.

Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez says Japan is a like-minded nation and the Philippines aims to cooperate and collaborate with it in coming up with a better capability.

The South China Sea is now called Asia's biggest potential flash point. It is crucial that both Japan and the United States ensure the safety of the South China Sea, as it is home to several important sea lanes. With China looming over it, the Philippines is aiming to step up ties with Japan and the United States based on their shared values and interests.


NHK World's Charmaine Deogracias joins NEWSROOM TOKYO anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya from Manila.

Beppu: This issue of the South China Sea is the biggest diplomatic headache for President Aquino. He'll be meeting other leaders in the region next month at the APEC summit and East Asia Summit. How is President Aquino going to deal with this sensitive issue?

Deogracias: As far as APEC is concerned, he is the leader of the host nation and so this will likely affect his actions. He has stated that he will not raise the issue of the South China Sea at the event. By making it clear that China will not lose face, he is apparently aiming to ensure that Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend and that the summit will be a success. Instead, Aquino will likely use the East-Asia Summit in Malaysia to clarify his positions. With the leaders of the US, Japan and the ASEAN countries due to attend, he will likely take full advantage of the event to gain the understanding of the international community for his country's position.

Beppu: The Philippines is planning to hold a presidential election in May 2016. The constitution does not allow the current president to extend his term. Will a change in the presidency affect the diplomatic stance of the country?

Deogracias: Those running in the race and other likely candidates differ in their level of commitment to economic relations with China. The Philippines' economy is in good shape, but there is concern in business and other circles that the outlook may be negatively affected if relations with China deteriorate. The level of criticism directed at China could change depending on who becomes next president. But any compromise by the Philippines on territorial issues would be certain to provoke strong public criticism. The country takes a harder stance toward China than other ASEAN members. So there is unlikely to be a drastic change in the Philippines' diplomacy toward China no matter who takes office next.