By Jason Gutierrez, Jeoffrey Maitem and Jojo Riñoza
A Philippine Coast Guard unit conducted an anti-terror training drill Tuesday in which it intercepted a ship carrying “weapons of mass destruction” during a joint exercise with American and Japanese counterparts in the contested South China Sea.
The Philippine, U.S. and Japanese coast guards are holding their first trilateral exercises in the disputed waters, in drills scheduled through Wednesday. About 100 U.S. Coast Guard personnel, 200 from the Philippine Coast Guard and 70 from the Japan Coast Guard took part in Tuesday’s mock counter-terrorist drill off the Bataan Peninsula in western Luzon island.
The day’s exercise focused on collaborative mission planning and joint search-and-rescue operations involving sea and air assets, officials said.
“The exercises aim to build the relationship we have with Japan and the U.S. And this is not the first time we have had drills with both countries,” Lt. Junior Grade Jhenrich John Ibanez, a Philippine Coast Guard spokesman, told reporters.
“This is purely coast guard-to-coast guard matters. This has nothing to do with China,” he said.
In a scenario as part of the drill, the Department of Foreign affairs “received” information from the United Nations Security Council about a ship carrying “weapons of mass destruction” en route to Manila, the Philippine capital.
The department informed the coast guard that a foreign flag ship, MV Destroyer, had a crew of 12 including four linked to a terror organization.
Under the scenario, the Philippine crew then engaged the invaders in a gunfight, capturing five and injuring two others. The other five jumped overboard and were captured by nearby U.S. and Japanese personnel.
BenarNews reporters were on site to observe the mock incident, which unfolded about 50 nautical miles off Bataan, a Philippine province facing the South China Sea. Those waters are well within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone, a region Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.
Vice Adm. Rolando Punzalan said the three nations recognized the importance of cooperation.
“The three coast guard agencies agree on the importance of conducting periodic exercises to ensure the stability and security in the Indo-Pacific region,” Punzalan said.
The drill occurred more than a month after the Philippines and the U.S. held their biggest annual Balikatan joint exercises in the coastal town of San Antonio in Zambales, another province overlooking the South China Sea.
During that time, two China Coast Guard ships intercepted Philippine patrol boats and “exhibited aggressive tactics” near Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal. At one point, a Chinese ship came within 50 yards (46 meters) of a Philippine ship, while another “persistently followed BRP Malabrigo” at a distance of 700 yards (640 meters).
Beijing has said the Philippine ship trespassed into waters near Ren’ai Reef, the Chinese name for Ayungin Shoal, and dangerously approached a Chinese ship.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea while the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan claim their own territories.
In 2016, an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and against the sweeping “nine-dash line” China uses to assert its maritime claims. Beijing steadfastly refused to acknowledge the ruling.