The United States, Australia, and the Philippines Participated in Joint South China Sea Patrols

Manila started joint patrols with Australia involving two navy vessels and five surveillance aircraft from the Philippines and Australia’s HMAS Toowoomba warship and a P-8A maritime surveillance aircraft. The activity in the contested waters is scheduled to continue until November 27.

China, which has the world’s largest fishing fleet, claims most of the South China Sea. Six other Asian governments – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have territorial claims or maritime boundaries that overlap with China’s claims.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr announced the start of the exercises on his official social media platform X (formerly Twitter),  following months of a series of discussions this year between Philippines and Australia Defense officials  over the joint patrols. 

“We endeavor to enhance bilateral interoperability in maritime security and domain awareness; test doctrines, existing protocols, and enhance efficiency; and foster closer cooperation between our countries’ armed forces,”

Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos Jr

“This inaugural Maritime Cooperative Activity and those that may follow are a practical manifestation of the growing and deepening strategic and defense partnership between our countries,” he added.

Marcos highlighted the joint maritime activity between the Philippines and Australia as a testament to their shared commitment “to upholding the rules-based international order and fostering a more peaceful, secure, and stable Indo-Pacific region.”

Specifically, joining the drills included the Philippine Navy’s BRP Gregorio del Pilar, BRP Davao Del Sur, and five Philippine Air Force surveillance aircraft. On the Australia side: The Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Toowoomba and a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A maritime surveillance aircraft. The joint patrol comes after a maritime altercation between HMAS Toowoomba and Chinese destroyer Ningbo (139) last week off Japan’s coast which injured Australian navy divers.

“Australia and the Philippines are firmly committed to a peaceful, secure and prosperous region, where sovereignty and agreed rules and norms are respected,”

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles

“The first joint patrol between the Australian Defence Force and Armed Forces of the Philippines demonstrates this important commitment,” Marles added.

Philippines joint South China Sea patrols with Australia
Philippine Navy ships BRP Davao Del Sur (right) and BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (left) conduct a maritime cooperative activity with HMAS Toowoomba during a regional presence deployment. (Photo from the Australian Defence Department)

Close friends and strategic partners, Australia and the Philippines both support the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and reaffirm the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal Award as final and legally binding on both parties.    

“The Philippines and Australia are longstanding defense partners. The Philippines welcomes bilateral activities with Australia, and other like-minded partners, that promote and maintain a rules-based international order,” said Defense secretary GilbertoTeodoro Jr.

“There will be several iterations of joint patrols and this should not be an issue because it is entirely within the rights of the Philippines to patrol anywhere, whether in the high seas or in the area where it has jurisdiction pursuant to international law,” he added.

Philippines joint South China Sea patrols with Australia
The Philippine Navy’s BRP Davao Del Sur and Australian Navy’s HMAS Toowoomba performed officer of the watch (OOW) Maneuvers as part of the Maritime Cooperative Activity (MCA) on November 25, 2023 in Palawan. (Photo from Western Command, AFP)

Days earlier, the Philippines and United States also conducted joint sea and air patrols off the Island of Batanes, the country’s northernmost province close to Taiwan that China claims as its own.

The patrols entail the deployment of three navy ships and three fighter jets from the Philippine military, complemented by one littoral combat ship and one aircraft from the American side.

The two historic activities happened as Marcos arrived in the country from the U.S. where he attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco. He also met Chinese leader Xi Jinping and visited the headquarters of the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii.

“This significant initiative is a testament to our commitment to bolster the interoperability of our military forces in conducting maritime and air patrols,” Marcos said.

Armed Forces of the Philippines AFP chief of staff General Romeo Brawner Jr. considered their  joint maritime and air patrols with the US “a success” despite being shadowed by a Chinese warship. 

According to Brawner, two Philippine ships and a US vessel were sailing together to northern Palawan when they observed a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel tailing them.

“We feel we have met the objectives… We are confident that we are now more able to operate with our ally, the US,” Brawner said.

“The Chinese ship did not engage in any dangerous maneuver and its shadowing was already expected”.  It was considered during the planning process. We expected this already. We are also thankful that there was no untoward incident during the whole joint patrols, all three days,” he told reporters.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Defense has accused the Philippines of “stirring up trouble” in the region and enlisting “foreign forces” to patrol the sea. 

“Since November 21, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command Navy ship Yuncheng has conducted routine patrols in the South China Sea,” the MOD said in a statement issued Thursday. 

“During this period, the Philippines enlisted foreign forces to patrol the South China Sea, stir up trouble, and hype up regional peace and stability, violating the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.”

The Philippines-US joint patrols are part of a series of events agreed to by the governments of both nations that have been allies since they signed their Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951. 

Under the treaty, it calls on both countries to aid each other in times of aggression by an external power. The Pentagon previously said it was prepared to assist Manila if it invoked the treaty amid threats from other nations.

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