Military drills throw United States into China-Philippine dispute over resource-rich shoal

U.S. and Filipino soldiers are seen on a boat during a joint mock beachfront assault on the shore of Ulugan Bay on Palawan island in the Philippines April 25, 2012.
AFP/Getty Images
U.S. and Filipino soldiers are seen on a boat during a joint mock beachfront assault on the shore of Ulugan Bay on Palawan island in the Philippines April 25, 2012.
U.S. and Filipino soldiers are seen on a boat during a joint mock beachfront assault on the shore of Ulugan Bay on Palawan island in the Philippines April 25, 2012.
AFP/Getty Images

(CBS News) PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines - Defying Beijing's warning, the Philippines and the United States held military drills this week in the island of Palawan near the South China Sea. Close to a hundred troops from both countries took part in a mock assault of an island, supposedly occupied by members of the Abu Sayyaf, al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Southern Philippines.

It could have been just one of the drills regularly held by Philippine and American forces during annual joint military exercises called Balikatan, which literally means "shoulder to shoulder." But this year's exercises took place just as the Philippines and China are locked in a tense standoff over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, a group of rock formations 124 nautical miles west of Zambales province in the Philippines, believed to be rich in oil and gas resources as well as marine life.

Both countries are claiming ownership of the area, the Philippines on account of its proximity in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and China on historical grounds as evidenced by ancient maps.

The crisis began when members of the Philippine Navy patrolling the area attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen allegedly engaged in illegal poaching. That was when two Chinese surveillance ships arrived to stop the arrest. Since then, both countries have sent mixed signals to one another - negotiating through diplomatic channels while also deploying military and civilian ships in and out of the area.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has said that an "element of trust" was lacking in the negotiations, adding that Chinese Ambassador to Manila Ma Keqing has been sending misleading and inaccurate information to Beijing, leading to what the Philippines perceives as a more aggressive stance.

"China's military forces will collaborate closely with related governing bodies, including fishery administration and maritime law enforcement, to jointly ensure the country's maritime rights and interests," Geng Yansheng, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said from Beijing.

The current standoff is just the latest in a string of disputes the Philippines and China have had. Last year, Manila accused a Chinese Navy vessel of harassing a survey ship commissioned by the Philippines' Energy Department.

That some of the drills in this year's joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises were held in areas directly facing the South China Sea did not help matters. Beijing had warned that the exercises could fan the risk of an armed confrontation, but both Philippine and U.S. military officials have sought to defuse the tension.

"Location is irrelevant," U.S. Navy spokesman Ensign Bryan Mitchell told reporters.

"These exercises take place on a regular basis," said Mitchell. "This year it happens to be in Palawan. The planning for this took place months ago prior to any events that are popping in the headlines."

But Philippine officials say they intend to raise the issue with Washington in upcoming defense talks between del Rosario and Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and their U.S. counterparts, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Exactly how the United States will be able to help the Philippines in resolving territorial disputes with China is unclear. The United States has consistently said that it is taking no sides although under an existing mutual defense treaty it is obliged to defend the Philippines from outside aggression.

But China has made it clear it wants no outside intervention in the resolution of these territorial issues.

"The South China Sea issue is not an issue between China and the U.S. because the U.S. doesn't have claims over the South China Sea and does not take sides, and we take this position as a reasonable one," Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said.

Still, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has sought the support not only of the United States but has urged its southeast neighbors, some of which also have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, to take a united stance against China.

"They claim this entire body of water practically. Look at what is excluded and what they are claiming," Aquino told reporters earlier this week. "So how can the others not be fearful of what is transpiring?"

But according to Benito Lim, a political analyst and professor of Chinese studies at the Ateneo de Manila University, the United States is not likely to dip its hands in the conflict.

"The U.S. is also allied with Taiwan, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. And they all have claims in the South China Sea, so who is the U.S. supposed to side with?" Lim said. "I think the U.S. will decide to keep quiet on this one."

Negotiations between Manila and Beijing are still ongoing, and both sides say they are committed to resolving the issue diplomatically. The Philippines, for its part, has expressed its intention to bring the case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, a move that China has opposed.