US and Philippines launch largest-ever military drills amid growing tension in South China Sea

ITV News' Asia Correspondent Debi Edward exclusively interviews the Commanding General of the Philippines Army as tensions rise in South China Sea

On Tuesday China continued its intimidation of Taiwan with live-fire drills. Its three-day simulated encirclement of the island, entitled Operation Sword, was hailed a success and now the PLA (People's Liberation Army) has moved on to staging missile strikes.

On state television every night they have produced slick propaganda videos which show these exercises being carried out in a theatrical fashion, but the threat is very real.

And the rising risk of conflict around Taiwan will give an added edge to this year's Balikatan war games in the Philippines.

We attended the opening ceremony of what will be the largest military drills ever conducted by US forces and their Filipino allies.

In an exclusive interview with ITV News the Commanding General of the Philippines Army Romeo Brawner Jr. said given its location next to the Pacific and the South China Sea, the Philippines has a strategic importance which means it would inevitably be drawn into any regional conflict.

This weekend China conducted military drills in the channel which separates the main island from Taiwan.

Due to its location, the Phillipines would be 'drawn into conflict', Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said

There will be 17,600 troops taking part in the 38th Balikatan and 12,000 are American. There will also be a delegation of around one hundred Australian soldiers and a team from Japan to observe.

General Brawner stressed the importance of regional alliances in the current climate. He wouldn’t name China specifically but spoke of threats from "external aggressors" and the need for the Philippines to work with the United States and Indo-Pacific partners to maintain peace and stability.

There is no doubt that the situation in Ukraine has focused military minds around the world, and the general said they are learning from what is happening in Europe.

They are adjusting their tactics and strategies based on what they are seeing on the battlefield, and it has shown him the need to modernise and enhance his army’s warfare capabilities.

The Phillipines is learning a lot from the Ukraine and Russia war, he said

The US and the Philippines have recently signed a new defence deal, which will see the Americans almost double the number of bases they have access to in the country.

Although only on a rotational basis, it will still give the US their largest footprint in the Philippines since they withdrew in 1992.

That decision has proved controversial for many who believe the government in Manila is being drawn into a US-led conflict.

The majority, however, are glad to see a return of the old alliance. President Marcos Jnr hasn’t tilted away from China, but he has most certainly tilted towards defence ties with the United States.

Relations have been strained between Beijing and Manila since the Chinese Government ignored an international ruling to stake a majority claim in the South China Sea.

The aptly named Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands, has been shored up to provide China with a mid ocean landing strip.

There have been several shipping confrontations where Chinese and Filipino vessels, and others have got involved in dangerous standoffs.

Those territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the heightened risk of conflict in and around Taiwan have led the Indo-Pacific region, the waters around the Philippines, to be labelled one of the most dangerous in the world.

Balikatan means shoulder to shoulder, and the Philippines and the United States - two old allies - are assembling at a time when sides are again being drawn.

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