China showed some official concern as joint US/Philippines military exercise got underway. "It is in the common interests of all parties concerned to maintain peace and stability in Asia and the Pacific, which demands constructive efforts by all parties," said Hua Chunying said at a daily press briefing at China’s foreign ministry on April 6. "(We) hope that actions taken by the United States and the Philippines will go in this direction as well," said the spokeswoman, urging the two countries to do things "conducive to building mutual trust among countries and maintaining peace and stability in the region."
The United States and the Philippines doubled the size of the annual exercise as fear grow that China seeks to dominate the South China Sea and its vital sea lanes and resources. Speaking for the Philippines’ defense department, Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc said on April 6 that nearly 12,000 soldiers. Of these, 6,600 U.S. personnel are participating in exercises that include live fire, field training, and humanitarian assistance. In 2014, the Balikatan exercise staged only 5,500 military personnel.
Cabunoc said that the ample size of the war games is evidence of a renewed alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines. According to AFP, Cabunoc said "The higher strength of Balikatan 2015 for this year only reflects the Philippines' and the United States' growing commitment to enhance our capability to conduct joint military and non-military activities." Filipino authorities dismissed suggestions that the war game amounted to preparations for war with China. Part of the exercise will be staged from Zambales naval base, which is 137 miles east of the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Scarborough Shoal is a rich fishing ground that lies within the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone. However, China has controlled the shoal since 2012. China claims nearly the entirety of the South China Sea, including waters, reefs, and tiny islands close to the Philippines and Vietnam, far from the Chinese mainland. In addition to the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam have competing claims to the strategic South China Sea.
The Philippines has repeatedly protested that China is taking increasingly assertive action in the South China Sea. The former U.S. colony has also sought closer military ties with the United States as a result. In 2014, the U.S. and the Philippines signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement to allow a greater American military presence on the island nation. However, the agreement has yet to be implemented since the Supreme Court of the Philippines is hearing constitutional challenges posed by anti-US political groups.
The Philippines have taken other actions to challenge China's aggression in the South China Sea. In 2009, the Philippines deliberately grounded a naval vessel at Second Thomas Shoal, a reef in the Spratly Islands: an area disputed with China. On board is a detachment of Filipino Marines who remain on the wreck as a show of the Philippines' claim to nearby islands. Chinese coast guard vessels frequently bar fishing boats from other nations