US and Philippine forces fire on a mock enemy warship in a military exercise in the South China Sea

(CNN) US and Philippine forces fired on a mock enemy warship in the South China Sea on Wednesday, in the latest show of US firepower in Asia as tensions with China continue to escalate.

The exercise, watched live by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., was part of the annual Balikatan exercise, which is scheduled to run through April 28 and involve more than 17,600 troops — the largest such exercise ever conducted by the two longtime allies.

US aircraft, including the F-35 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as HIMARS missile systems and Cobra helicopters joined Philippine FA-50 fighter jets, helicopters and artillery to fire on a decommissioned warship towed to a position within Philippine territorial waters. A Philippine military statement said that the island of Luzon.

Luzon, the northernmost island of the main Philippine islands, is only 280 miles (452 ​​km) from Taiwan, the self-ruled island over which the Chinese Communist Party claims sovereignty although it never ruled it. Earlier this month, China’s state-run media described the exercise as an “attempt to target China”.

The commanders of the US and Philippine militaries said Wednesday’s exercise is designed to synchronize combat forces.

“This exercise increased the realism and complexity of the exercises, which are a major joint priority between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the US Army,” Lieutenant General William Gurney, Commanding Officer, Marine Corps, Pacific, said in a statement.

“Together we are strengthening our capabilities in large-scale military operations in all fields,” Gorney said.

The exercises come against a backdrop of improving relations between the two treaty allies following the election of Marcos Jr., who has sought to develop closer ties with Washington in the face of a more assertive China.

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The United States and the Philippines have maintained a mutual defense treaty since 1951, but under Marcos’ predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines tilted toward China, downplaying long-running territorial disputes with Beijing while seeking to attract investment.

Balikatan exercises – tagalog shoulder to shoulder – follow the declaration to be given by the philippines Increased access of US forces to bases in the archipelago under 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Arrangement (EDCA).

The four bases join five earlier bases, including three on the main island of Luzon, near Taiwan, and one on Palapak Island near Chinese facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea.

HIMARS and Marine Corps

China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over nearly all of the 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea, including several islands claimed by the Philippines, despite 2016 International Court The ruling refuted its supposed “historic rights” to the region.

Regional tensions in the South China Sea escalated in February, when the Philippines said a Chinese coast guard ship Aiming at a “military grade” laser on some of the crew of the Philippine Coast Guard vessel, causing them to be temporarily blinded.

Besides Tuesday’s drills, this year’s Balikatan exercises included weapons tested by Ukrainian forces defending against Russian forces, including Javelin portable anti-tank missiles and HIMARS missile systems.

Analysts say another key component is the presence of the United States’ 3rd Coastal Marine Regiment, a new Marine combat concept designed with a struggle against China in mind.

The unit is designed to be highly mobile, conducting offensive operations as well as air and missile defense and naval surface warfare support, according to Marine Corps releases.

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The exercises also included amphibious operations, maritime security, cyber defense, and counterterrorism operations, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, according to a statement from the US Embassy in Manila.

Meanwhile, in another sign of increasing military cooperation between the United States and the Philippines, the US Pacific Air Force said on Tuesday that major air exercises will return to the Philippines next month for the first time since 1990.

Exercise Cobb Thunder, scheduled for May 1-12, will have USAF F-16 fighter jets deploying from Misawa Air Base in Japan and joining Philippine Air Force units at Clark Air Base to “provide dual fighter training.” and “improve joint interoperability,” a US Air Force statement said.

Cope Thunder began in the Philippines in 1976, but moved to Alaska in the early 1990s as the USAF ended operations in Clark.

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