MANILA: Naval vessels from the Philippines, America, India and Japan have sailed together through the South China Sea for the first time in a week-long joint maritime drill against a backdrop of rising tensions over territorial disputes in the region.
Six ships from the four countries — the US guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence, Philippine patrol ship BRP Andres Bonifacio, Indian destroyer INS Kolkata and tanker INS Shakti, and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) helicopter-carrier JS Izumo and destroyer JS Murasame — transited through international waters May 2 to 8 in a bid to promote maritime cooperation throughout a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“This combined transit exercise aims to strengthen the partnership and foster mutual understanding between participants,” the Philippine Navy said an emailed statement.
“The group sail showed the active participation of the Philippine Navy as it strengthens its relationships with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. This gives us another opportunity to learn from like-minded navies,” said Captain Roy Vincent Trinidad of the Philippine Navy.
The commanding officer of BRP Andres Bonifacio, Capt. Jerry Garrido Jr., said: “Our bond of friendship with regional partners is as strong as our commitment to maintain peace and stability in the region.”
The naval drills came after the Philippines’ participation in the first phase of the ASEAN-Plus Defense Ministers’ Meeting Maritime Security Field Training Exercise 2019 in Busan, Republic of Korea. Ships from the four countries transited international waters to Changi, Singapore where the second phase of the exercise will conclude.
As they crossed the South China Sea, the ships conducted formation exercises, communication drills, passenger transfers, and held a leadership exchange aboard JS Izumo.
Rear Adm. Hiroshi Egawa, JMSDF Escort Flotilla Division One Commander, said the opportunity of a combined transit exercise with the US Navy and regional partners would “build mutual understanding and trust” and serve as a way to enhance regional peace and stability.
“The ability to do various exercises (with) four different navies smoothly demonstrated (our) professionalism and high operational skills,” he said.
An official statement from the Indian Navy said the group sail was intended to “enhance maritime cooperation, synergize maritime engagements, share best practices and standardize operating procedures.”
Days prior to the exercise, the USS William P. Lawrence, along with another US Navy ship, the USS Stethem, sailed the Taiwan Straits, a move which provoked anger in China, which also denounced the sailing for two US warships close to the disputed Spratly Islands earlier this week.