Some 1,500 U.S. and Filipino sailors and Marines wrapped up a five-day exercise Tuesday that included maneuvers in the South China Sea, simulated beach assaults and other training aimed at getting the forces used to working alongside one other.
The war games — known as Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Philippines — were held amid an escalating maritime dispute between China and several Southeast Asian nations over control of a number of small islands and reefs in the region.
The guided-missile destroyer USS McCain, rescue-and-salvage ship USNS Safeguard, amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland and 1,000 U.S. personnel took part in the exercise.
CARAT, in its 20th year and part of a series of engagements between the Navy and its counterparts in nine Asian nations, is growing in size and complexity, said Capt. Paul Schlise, commander, Destroyer Squadron 7, who oversaw U.S. forces taking part.
During the event, U.S. sailors and Marines conducted simulated naval engagements with about 500 Filipino personnel and two Philippine Navy frigates, officials said.
Filipino helicopters practiced take-offs and landings from the McCain for the first time, and U.S. and Filipino marines conducted a beach assault in amphibious vehicles launched from the Ashland, Schlise said.
The combined forces, which included riverine troops, explosive ordnance disposal experts, Navy Seabees and divers, practiced search and seizure of vessels on the high seas, tactical maneuvering and salvage operations, he said.
The Philippines, one of the nations embroiled in the territorial dispute with China over resource-rich islands, is negotiating an agreement that aims to increase the presence of U.S. rotational forces in the country.
Schlise didn’t directly address that issue in an interview Tuesday.
“We have shared maritime security interests in the region,” he said. “This exercise is about relationship building and interoperability.”
Officials from the Armed Forces of the Philippines could not be reached for comment.
However, retired U.S. Navy captain Jan van Tol, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said some of the activities that the U.S. and Filipino forces were practicing, such as amphibious landings, sea patrols and surveillance, would be relevant to operations near various islands in the South China Sea.
“These are assuredly in keeping with the objective of enhancing regional state maritime security capabilities,” he said.
America is interested in strengthening the capabilities of friendly states in Southeast Asia for peacetime missions such as antipiracy and in increasing their ability to defend their own security interests, he said.
Schlise said he expects CARAT Philippines to keep growing in years to come, although he did not provide details of what that might involve.
CARAT exercises have also been conducted in Malaysia and Indonesia this year. Additional CARAT events will be held this year in Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore and East Timor, according to a Navy news release.