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June 28, 2017

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US, Philippines start joint naval drills

PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines -- The United States pledged on Tuesday its "enduring commitment" to helping the Philippines, as the longtime allies began naval exercises amid a simmering maritime row with China.

Two state-of-the-art U.S. missile destroyers sailed into Philippine waters to kick-start the 11 days of training, which will take place close to the much-coveted South China Sea that is the focus of the regional tensions.

Both sides emphasized the event was an annual one aimed at deepening defense ties, and not linked to the rising concern in Manila about allegedly aggressive Chinese actions in the strategic and potentially resource-rich South China Sea.

"The Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) operation was planned in advance ... the issue in the South China Sea started in February," Philippine Navy vice-commander Rear Admiral Orwen Cortez said at an opening ceremony for the event, referring to it by its acronym.

"CARAT has nothing to do with the issue."

Nevertheless, the exercises were portrayed as a show of unity between the Philippines and its former colonial ruler.

"The U.S. and the Philippines are allies and that is the strongest and most enduring commitment the two nations can make," the commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral Scott Van Buskirk, said at the opening ceremony.

"Our alliance is underpinned by a deep and abiding U.S. interest in the freedom and security of the Republic of the Philippines."

Philippine President Benigno Aquino this month called for U.S. help in containing China's South China Sea ambitions, saying his country was too weak to stand up to the Chinese alone.

Aquino made his plea to the United States after accusing China of inciting at least seven recent incidents in the disputed waters, including one in which a Chinese vessel allegedly opened fire on Filipino fishermen.

Aquino also accused China of breaking international law by entering the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile economic exclusion zone.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week offered the Philippines' some comfort, pledging that the superpower would help to modernize the cash-strapped Philippine military.

"We are determined and committed to supporting the defense of the Philippines," vowed Clinton.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea, which is believed to have vast oil and gas deposits, while its shipping lanes are vital for global trade.

Vietnam as well as the Philippines have in recent months accused China of taking increasingly aggressive actions in staking its claim to the disputed waters and its archipelagos.

In response, China has insisted it wants to resolve the territorial dispute peacefully but remained firm in its claims to most of the South China Sea, even waters within the Philippines' economic exclusion zone.

Tuesday's opening ceremony for the naval exercises took place at a military base in Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, a narrow island that divides the South China Sea to the west and the Sulu Sea in the east.

The exercises will take place in the Sulu Sea.

About 800 U.S. sailors will be involved, as well as the two guided missile destroyers and a salvage ship. They will join a Philippine fleet of mainly World War II-era ships.

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