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Philippines, US Navies Hold First Joint Sail in South China Sea

The Philippines and the United States navies conducted their first joint sail in the South China Sea on Monday, September 4, 2023, in a show of solidarity and cooperation amid rising tensions with China over the disputed waters.

The joint sail was the first of its kind in waters west of Palawan island, which is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and also claimed by China as part of its nine-dash line. The joint sail aimed to test and refine existing maritime doctrine and enhance interoperability between the two allies.

The Philippine Navy said in a statement that the joint sail involved the BRP Jose Rizal (FF-150), a multi-role frigate, and the USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10), a littoral combat ship. The two vessels conducted various drills, such as formation maneuvering, communications, and rules of engagement.

The Philippine Navy also said that the joint sail demonstrated the “strong bond” between the two navies and their “shared commitment to regional peace and stability”. The joint sail also reaffirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights over its EEZ and continental shelf, as well as its adherence to international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The US Navy said in a separate statement that the joint sail was part of the ongoing Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise, which is a series of bilateral and multilateral naval engagements between the US and its partners in Southeast Asia. The US Navy said that the joint sail enhanced the “enduring partnership” between the two navies and their “shared interest in upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific”.

The joint sail came at a time of increased tension between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea, where China has been building artificial islands, militarizing reefs, and harassing Filipino fishermen and vessels. The Philippines has repeatedly protested China’s actions, which it considers as violations of its sovereignty and maritime rights.

The joint sail also coincided with the visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Manila, where he reaffirmed the US’ commitment to defend the Philippines in case of an armed attack in the South China Sea. Blinken also announced additional security assistance to the Philippines, including $42 million worth of military equipment and training.

The joint sail was welcomed by analysts and observers as a positive sign of the strength and resilience of the Philippine-US alliance, which is considered as one of the oldest and most enduring in Asia. The joint sail also sent a clear message to China that the Philippines and the US are united in upholding freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.