Coast guard ships from the US, Japan, and the Philippines conducted law enforcement drills near the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday, as part of Washington’s efforts to reinforce alliances in Asia amid an increasingly tense rivalry with China. The exercises, witnessed by journalists aboard a Philippine coast guard patrol boat, included a scenario involving the interdiction and boarding of a vessel suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction off the Bataan Peninsula.
The drills, which will run from June 1-7, are hosted by the Philippines, Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia. The US Coast Guard has deployed its 418-foot Stratton, one of its most advanced cutters, to participate in the exercises. The Stratton has been conducting exercises in the region to share expertise in search and rescue and law enforcement, according to a statement from the US Coast Guard.
“This first trilateral engagement between the coast guards of these nations will provide invaluable opportunities to strengthen global maritime governance through professional exchanges and combined operations,” said the Stratton’s commanding officer, Capt. Brian Krautler, at the start of the exercises. “Together we’ll demonstrate professional, rules-based standards of maritime operations with our steadfast partners to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Japan deployed a large coast guard ship, the Akitsushima, while four Philippine coast guard vessels joined the exercises. The Biden administration has been strengthening military alliances in the Indo-Pacific to counter China, including in the South China Sea and in any potential confrontation over Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing regards as a Chinese province.
The US claims no sovereignty over the strategic South China Sea, where China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei have been engaged in territorial disputes for decades. However, the US maintains that freedom of navigation and peaceful dispute resolution in the busy waterway are in its national interest.
Philippine officials said that joint exercises with the US do not target any country. Nevertheless, China has warned that increased US security deployments in Asia target its interests and risk undermining regional stability.
Last month, Japan adopted a new five-year ocean policy that calls for stronger maritime security, including bolstering its coast guard capability and cooperation with the military. It cited a list of threats, including repeated intrusions by Chinese coast guard ships into Japanese territorial waters.
The Philippine coast guard has intensified patrols in the South China Sea and taken extra efforts to document and publicize assertive Chinese behavior in the waterway following a Feb. 6 incident. In the incident, a Chinese coast guard ship aimed a military-grade laser that briefly blinded some crew members on a Philippine patrol boat off a disputed reef.
The US Pacific Command said over the weekend that a US guided-missile destroyer and a Canadian frigate were intercepted by a Chinese warship in the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese vessel overtook the American ship and veered across its bow at a distance of 150 yards (about 140 meters) in an “unsafe manner,” it said. Last April, a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft flew directly in front of a US Air Force RC-135 plane, according to the US Indo-Pacific Command. The American reconnaissance plane “was conducting safe and routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace, in accordance with international law,” the command said in a statement.