Philippines, U.S. launch military drills amid South China Sea tensions

MANILA (Reuters) - Filipino and U.S. soldiers began military exercises for two weeks on Monday amid mounting tensions in the South China Sea, despite the fact that the drilling was scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Countries are continuing the drills, which were postponed last year due to the pandemic after Manila China recently accused China of making territorial incursions by hundreds of its militia-manned ships in the South China Sea.
However, Chinese diplomats said the boats only provided protection from rough seas and there was no militia on board.
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Filipino military officials said the "Balikatan" (shoulder to shoulder) war games ending April 23 will include tabletop and simulation exercises rather than field training.
Social distancing protocols have reduced the number of troops participating from nearly 8,000 in previous years to nearly a thousand.
All ground exercises have been canceled, with the exception of live fire exercises, which do not require personal engagement, Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, the exercise director, said in a speech.
In a speech by his Undersecretary of State, Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said the joint exercises would "strengthen our ability to address traditional and nontraditional security challenges in the increasingly complex situation in the region."
Lorenzana and his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, spoke on the phone on Sunday to discuss the drills, the situation in the South China Sea and recent regional security developments.
The defense chiefs also reiterated the importance of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries, which provides the legal framework under which US forces in the Philippines can operate on a rotation basis.
Philippine President Rorigo Duterte said the United States should pay more to keep the VFA, which he unilaterally canceled last year when he responded angrily at an ally's denial of a US visa.
However, the withdrawal period has been extended twice to create a window for better conditions, according to Filipino officials.
(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Ed Davies)

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