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China wary as US, Philippines stage war games

American and Philippine troops waded ashore in a mock assault to retake the island of Palawan against a background of rising tension in the South China Sea.  NBC's Ian Williams reports. 

ULUGAN BAY, Philippines - Hundreds of American and Philippine troops waded ashore on Wednesday in a mock assault to retake a small island in energy-rich waters disputed with China, a drill Beijing had said would raise the risk of armed conflict.

The exercises, part of annual U.S.-Philippine war games on the western island of Palawan, coincide with another standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels near Scarborough Shoal in a different part of the South China Sea.


China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan across the South China Sea, each searching for gas and oil while building up their navies and military alliances.

China said last week the drill would raise the risk of confrontation. On Wednesday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said China was committed to dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the dispute.

"We are certainly worried about the South China Sea issue," Cui told a news briefing in Beijing, saying "some people tried to mix two unrelated things, territorial sovereignty and freedom of navigation."

Historical records
The comments come before high-level talks with the Obama administration. China, which claims the South China Sea based on historical records, has sought to resolve disputes bilaterally but its neighbors worry over what some see as growing Chinese assertiveness in its claims in the region.

"Location (of the drill) is irrelevant," Ensign Bryan Mitchell, spokesman for the U.S. Marines, told reporters.

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

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President Barack Obama has sought to reassure regional allies that Washington would serve as a counterbalance to China in the South China Sea, part of his campaign to "pivot" U.S. foreign policy towards Asia after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Philippine military officials sought to play down the exercise. Lieutenant General Juancho Sabban, military commander for the western Philippines, said the drill "simply means we want to work together, improve our skills."

Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

U.S. Marines and Filipino troops participate in a joint military exercise in Ulugan Bay on the western coast of the Philippines on Wednesday.

Sabban's area of command includes Reed Bank and the Spratlys, a group of 250 mostly uninhabitable islets spread over 165,000 sq miles west of Palawan.

The Spratlys are claimed entirely by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

Huge oil reserves
Proven and undiscovered oil reserve estimates in the South China Sea range as high as 213 billion barrels of oil, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a 2008 report. That would surpass every country's proven oil reserves except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, according to the BP Statistical Review.

A Philippine exploration firm, Philex Petroleum Corp, said on Tuesday its unit, Forum Energy Plc, had found more natural gas than expected around Reed Bank, where Chinese navy vessels tried to ram one of Forum Energy's survey ships last year.

The Philippines is due to open oil-and-gas exploration bids in Reed Bank on Friday.

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Vietnam reasserted its claim to the Spratlys and the Paracel islands, known in Chinese as the Xisha islands, further west of Scarborough Shoal in what it calls the East Sea.

Self-ruled Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, reiterated its claims over territories in the South China Sea and urged "countries concerned to exercise self-restraint so that peaceful resolutions can be reached through consultation".

Sabban said the military drill was not focused on China.

"Never was China ever mentioned in our planning and execution," he told reporters. "China should not be worried about Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises."

Amphibious assault
Nearly 7,000 American and Philippine troops were launched from U.S. and Philippine ships in the simulated amphibious assault to recapture an island supposedly taken by militants.

Commandos came ashore from U.S. and Philippine ships in a simulated amphibious assault to recapture an island supposedly taken by militants.

Jumping from rubber boats as they hit the shore, the commandos engaged in a mock firefight, making their way inch by inch from the beach to a navy facility to rescue "hostages" and recapture the base.

Read more China coverage on our Behind The Wall blog

Four days ago, commando teams rappelled from U.S. helicopters and landed from rubber boats in a mock assault to retake an oil rig in northern Palawan, 11 miles off the town of El Nido on the South China Sea.

The annual war games come under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, part of a web of security alliances the United States built in the Asia-Pacific region during the Cold War.

The drills are a rehearsal of a mutual defense plan by the two allies to repel any aggression in the Philippines.

Hundreds of kilometers to the north, a Philippine coast guard ship patrols near Scarborough Shoal, a group of half-submerged rock formations 124 nautical miles west of the Philippines' main island of Luzon.

Philippine and Chinese ships are often in the same areas of the South China Sea, with two Chinese maritime surveillance ships a few miles away from the coast guard vessel and five Chinese fishing boats working the waters nearby.