U.S., Japanese and Philippine Coast Guards Launch S. China Sea Drills
On Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Japan Coast Guard and the Philippine Coast Guard will launch a joint three-way exercise for the first time, prompting protests from Beijing. The exercise will not be a small matter: Three Philippine Coast Guard cutters (BRP Melchora Aquino, BRP Gabriela Silang, BRP Boracay) will join the National Security Cutter USCGC Stratton and the Japan Coast Guard cutter Akitsushima for a week of exercises based out of Bataan, with Australia participating as an observer.
In the runup to the exercises, the three coast guards held a training for boarding officers of the Philippine National Police Maritime Group in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. The town is the home of Antonio Bautista Air Base, the launch point for resupplying the Philippine outpost on Second Thomas Shoal.
The resupply mission often entails confrontation with China Coast Guard cutters, which often attempt to block Philippine Coast Guard vessels from reaching the outpost by hazing them with lasers, spraying them with water cannon or cutting across their bow.
On Wednesday, Chinese state media outlet Global Times expressed disapproval of the joint drills and speculated that they might entail something more. Chen Xiangmiao, a director at China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies, told the outlet that he believes that the U.S. and Japanese coast guards are likely to help the PCG to bring supplies to Second Thomas Shoal. The contested waters around Scarborough Shoal - where the China Coast Guard and Chinese maritime militia often confront Philippine fishermen - are another possible area for the joint U.S./Japanese/Philippine exercise to visit, Chen suggested.
This would be a rare example of international cooperation to confront China's gray-zone operations in the South China Sea. However, the Philippine Coast Guard has tamped down expectations that the joint exercise has anything to do with China or the Spratly Islands.
"[It is only] search and rescue and law enforcement. It has nothing to do with the West Philippine Sea," PCG Spokesperson Rear Adm. Armand Balilo told ABS CBN. "The Chinese Coast Guard was only passing by during the exercise last time. They have the freedom of navigation as long as they don't stay in our waters. We'll come up with a contingency plan and monitor should they pass by again this time."