One Death Won’t End This Mock War in the South China Sea
The United States and The Philippines rehearse a future conflict — clearly because of China
by GARRETT MCKINNEY SAMPLES
On April 7, a Filipino paratrooper jumped out of an aircraft so large that it sometimes ferries tanks. The parachute on his back was up to the task of slowing him down enough to survive meeting ground. Unfortunately, a wind gust blew him into the waters just off Subic Bay. He later passed away from his injuries in a hospital.
The unnamed trooper died taking part in the Balikatan military exercise, a joint U.S.-Philippine war game and one of the largest to have taken place in recent years. More than 5,000 American and 3,000 Filipino soldiers took part in the exercise, which included simulated seizures of offshore oil rigs, airborne parachute drops and mock amphibious assaults of contested beaches.
On the surface, these drills fit within a still morphing relationship borne out of joint U.S.-Philippine shadow wars with the country’s myriad insurgents. They also, however, more closely align with growing unease borne out of Chinese expansionism in the heavily contested South China Sea.
The Philippines has reason to worry. The South China Sea, long claimed by China, is increasingly being viewed as Chinese property not just in name, but in fact. The country has, through dredging, audacity and will, turned half-submerged reefs into island complexes sometimes dubbed, however controversially, as “unsinkable aircraft carriers.”
Beijing has planted J-11 fighter jets and HQ-9 anti-aircraft missile launchers on the nearby Woody Island, and maintains the ability to base similar military hardware on islands, man-made or not, elsewhere within the South China Sea. Perhaps most galling of all, to those in The Philippines at least, China has played cat and mouse games — almost exclusively as the feline — with Philippine boats ranging from military re-suppliers en route to isolated military outposts to fishermen in search of large hauls.
In response, the Philippine government has been searching for any friends it can find, with the largest and most generous being the United States. This alliance makes sense, as the two countries have fought, and largely won, a quiet war against Al Qaeda’s affiliates and associates in the dense, hilly jungles of the southern Philippines since 2002.
It’s a relationship that’s endured on to challenge the remaining insurgents that roam the southern Philippines and allow for the opening of at least five bases to American sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines. It’s a relationship that’s built the Balikatan, a word meaning “shoulder to shoulder,” where a man died alone in the cold waters of the Subic Bay.
He died training for a war that many fear, yet may never come to pass. If war does come to The Philippines, though, two things are sure. The lessons learned at Balikatan will be put to violent use, and that the man who perished on April 7 won’t be the last soldier to die in the South China Sea.
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