The United States is engaged in a form of “cognitive warfare” with China in the East and South China Sea, where both countries have deployed aircraft carrier strike groups, the South China Morning Post reported Monday.
On Sunday, the US released a photo that showed one of its guided-missile destroyers, the USS Mustin, shadowing the Liaoning group, a move that analysts said was designed to send a clear message to the Chinese.
The photo taken on Monday somewhere in the East China Sea showed the ship’s captain, Commander Robert J Briggs, and his deputy commander Richard D Slye watching the Liaoning, which was just a few thousand meters away.
“In the photo, Commander Briggs looks very relaxed with his feet up watching the Liaoning ship just a few thousand yards away, while his deputy is also sitting beside him, showing they take their PLA [People’s Liberation Army] counterparts lightly,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
“This staged photograph is definitely ‘cognitive warfare’ to show the US doesn’t regard the PLA as an immediate threat,” the Post quoted Lu as saying. On Sunday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines announced it would hold joint military exercises with US troops over the next two weeks, amid growing tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea.
The annual war games between the military allies were cancelled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This year’s event will be on a smaller scale than in previous years due to the health crisis, AFP chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said.
About 700 US soldiers and up to 1,300 members of the AFP will take part—about a quarter of the usual attendance, Sobejana said.
“The exercise this year is a hybrid of virtual and physical activities,” he said.
“It’s a low-key exercise, just to keep the alliance—the contact—between the two armed forces.”
The US embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The announcement came hours after a phone call between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana, who last week tested positive for the coronavirus.
They “discussed the situation in the South China Sea, and the recent massing of People’s Republic of China maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef,” according to a readout provided by the Pentagon.
To deepen their defense cooperation, Austin proposed “enhancing situational awareness of threats in the South China Sea”. The readout did not elaborate.
The 36th iteration of the annual “Balikatan” exercises between the AFP and the US military formally started on Monday.
AFP spokesman Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said this year’s “Balikatan” will be conducted with stringent health protocols in place and a reduced number of participants.
Participants in the two-week maneuvers include 736 Filipino and 225 American soldiers.
Arevalo’s US counterpart Col. Aaron Brunk reiterated the importance of the bilateral exercises.
Meanwhile, talks between the AFP and the Joint US Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG)-Philippines on Monday focused on how the two militaries can respond to situations or events in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“The discussions centered on how the Philippine and the United States armed forces can manage and respond to the situation in the Philippine EEZ,” said Arevalo.
Arevalo said the meeting between Sobejana and JUSMAG-Philippines chief Col. Stephen Ma was “a fruitful engagement.”
He added that both parties agreed to have subsequent meetings, he added.
Tensions over the resource-rich sea have intensified since hundreds of Chinese vessels were detected last month at the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, which is in the Spratly Islands where several countries, including China and the Philippines, have rival claims.
China, which claims almost the entirety of the sea, has refused repeated appeals by the Philippines to withdraw the vessels, which Manila says unlawfully entered its exclusive economic zone.
Beijing said previously they were fishing vessels sheltering from bad weather.
The United States reminded China last week of Washington’s treaty obligations to the Philippines in the event of an attack in the waters.
“An armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
The resumption of joint military drills comes more than a year after President Rodrigo Duterte—who has pivoted towards China since taking power in 2016 —gave notice that he planned to axe the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States.
The plan to break the deal — central to hundreds of joint military exercises with the US every year and a major component of their nearly 70-year-old alliance—has been suspended.
But it has underscored the complicated relations between the Philippines and its former colonial master, the United States.
Duterte’s stance also raised concern that the regional balance of power could tilt in Beijing’s favor. With AFP
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