The amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry steams across the South China Sea, April 21, 2024.

The amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry steams across the South China Sea, April 21, 2024. (Sang Kim/U.S. Navy)

A U.S. Navy amphibious ship, a French frigate and a pair of Philippine vessels have kicked off the at-sea portion of a joint-force exercise taking place throughout the Philippines this month.

Balikatan — “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Tagalog — involves 16,000 mostly American and Filipino troops. The drills began Monday and run until May 10 amid high tensions over Beijing’s claims to maritime territory held by the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Clashes between the Philippine and Chinese coast guards have increased near Second Thomas Shoal since last summer. Chinese vessels with water cannons blast Philippine resupply vessels bound for a ship stranded on the shoal off Palawan. The BRP Sierra Madre serves as Philippine outpost safeguarding its claims.

The U.S., Philippine and French ships departed Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Thursday, the state-run Philippine News Agency reported that day. The landing ship dock USS Harpers Ferry, the French navy’s FS Vendemiaire and the Philippines’ offshore patrol vessel BRP Ramon Alcaraz and landing dock BRP Davao Del Sur were headed for the exercise area in the South China Sea.

Crews will carry out tactical training and officer-of-the-watch maneuvers in waters east of Palawan, Philippine navy Capt. Ariel Joseph Coloma said in the report.

“Then going up north up to Mindoro Strait they will enter the West Philippine Sea,” he said, using his government’s official name for parts of the South China Sea that are inside the country’s exclusive economic zone.

There, the vessels will practice gunnery until Monday before breaking away for other activities. For example, the Davao del Sur is scheduled to join an amphibious assault exercise on Tuesday, Coloma said.

Meanwhile, the Ramon Alcaraz and the Vendemiaire will do a “bilateral sail” from Tuesday to May 3, while the Harpers Ferry will “proceed independently,” he said.

Similar training has occurred in previous years, according to Grant Newsham, a retired Marine colonel and senior researcher with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo

“The exercise does include a French Navy ship, so that has a certain political significance,” he said by email Friday. “The fact the three nations navies’ are getting out and about in the contested West Philippine Sea does say something — and the US is hoping it says ‘resolve.’”

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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