Free and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPPartnershipsSoutheast Asia

South China Sea patrols strengthen Philippine, U.S. naval relations


The Philippine and United States navies, responding to hostile Chinese actions in the South China Sea, held a two-day maritime exercise in January 2024 to enhance interoperability and project strength.

The longtime allies conducted joint patrols in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in a part of the South China Sea that Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea. Drills included cross-deck exchanges and passing exercises, and exchanges on maritime domain awareness and other security matters. The Philippine contingent comprised patrol vessels BRP Gregorio del Pilar and BRP Ramon Alcaraz, and landing platform dock BRP Davao del Sur. U.S. participants included Carrier Strike Group 1 flagship aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its air wing, guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton, and guided-missile destroyers USS Sterett and USS Kidd.

“The maritime cooperative activity marks a significant leap in our alliance and interoperability with the United States,” said Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. “It also demonstrates our progress in defense capabilities and development as a world-class armed force.”

The bilateral patrols follow an uptick in encounters between People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Philippine vessels in 2023. The PRC claims much of the South China Sea despite an international tribunal’s ruling in 2016 that invalidated Beijing’s arbitrary boundary.

Some confrontations occurred during Philippine resupply missions to Second Thomas Shoal in the nation’s EEZ, where Marines are stationed aboard an intentionally grounded naval vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre, that serves as a military outpost. Chinese coast guard vessels have rammed and fired water cannons at resupply vessels and also aimed a military-grade laser at a Philippine Coast Guard ship headed for the Sierra Madre in February 2023, temporarily blinding crew members.

A month later, a Chinese navy ship and 42 suspected Chinese maritime militia vessels were spotted near Thitu Island, another Philippine outpost in the South China Sea, Reuters reported.

Nations including the U.S. support the Philippines’ maritime claims and have condemned Beijing’s actions. Under their expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, the Philippines in 2023 granted the U.S. access to four additional military sites, three of which face Taiwan, the self-governed island the PRC claims as its own and threatens to annex by force. The Philippines and U.S. also staged their largest Balikatan military exercise in April 2023, with more than 17,000 personnel and, for the first time, live-fire drills at sea.

Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims in the South China Sea with the PRC. The major shipping route has significant fisheries, and oil and gas resources.

Indonesia and the Philippines agreed in January 2024 to strengthen cooperation on maritime security matters, the Nikkei Asia newspaper reported. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Indonesian President Joko Widodo met in Manila after Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Jakarta is ready to work with other Southeast Asian nations to finalize a long-delayed code of conduct for the South China Sea intended to resolve territorial disputes.

Allies and Partners routinely conduct naval exercises in the South China Sea and elsewhere to enhance combined readiness and capabilities. The U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group 1, capable of missions from combat to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, participated in the Multi-Large Deck Event and Annual Exercise 2023 in November, collaborating with allied forces such as the Royal Australian Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. Another Philippine-U.S. patrol also was conducted that month.

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