Australian, US and Filipino militaries practice retaking an island during an exercise in the South China Sea

MANILA, Philippines (AP) —

Australian and Philippine forces, backed by US marines, practiced retaking an island captured by enemy forces in a major military exercise on Friday on the northwestern Philippine coast across from the disputed South China Sea.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and visiting Australian Secretary of Defense Richard Marles observed the simulated beach landings, assaults and helicopter operations at a Philippine naval base attended by 1,200 Australians, 560 Filipinos and 120 US Marines.

The three countries have been among the harshest critics of China’s increasingly aggressive and confrontational stance in the disputed waters, but the Philippine military said Beijing was not an imaginary target in the combat drills, which are the largest between Australia and the Philippines to date.

“It’s an important aspect of how we prepare for any eventuality, and considering there have been so many events that show the region’s volatility,” Marcos said in a press conference after combat drills.

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Marles, in a separate news conference with his Filipino counterpart Gilberto Teodoro Jr., said the military drills were aimed at promoting the rule of law and peace in the region.

“The message we want to convey to the region and the world through an exercise of this nature is that we are two countries committed to the global, rules-based order,” Marles said.

“Peace is maintained by protecting the global rules-based order and its functioning around the world, and indeed we see it under pressure worldwide today,” Marles said.

After meeting on the sidelines of combat exercises, Marles and Teodoro said in a joint statement that they would pursue plans for joint patrols in the South China Sea. “We are committed to expanding some of our bilateral activities in the future to include other countries committed to maintaining peace and security in our region,” the two said.

They reiterated their support for a 2016 ruling by an arbitration tribunal in The Hague under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which largely invalidated China’s claim to virtually all of the South China Sea and stripped the Philippines of control of resources in a 200-nautical-mile procedure maintained. Mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

China refused to participate in the arbitration and continues to oppose the verdict.

In the latest flare-ups As part of the dispute, on August 5 a Chinese Coast Guard vessel used a water cannon to block a Filipino supply run at Second Thomas Shoal, where Filipino troops are stationed.

Australia and the US expressed their strong support for the Philippines and expressed grave concern about the actions of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels. Washington renewed its warning that it had an obligation to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Philippine forces, ships and planes were attacked, including in the South China Sea.

Two Filipino supply boats managed to break through the Chinese blockade on Tuesday in a tense confrontation observed by journalists, including two from The Associated Press.

China has warned the US not to meddle in an allegedly all-Asian dispute. Washington has said it will continue to conduct patrols in the disputed waters to encourage freedom of navigation and overflight.

In addition to China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping territorial claims in the waterway, a potential flashpoint in Asia that has also become a thorny front in the US-China rivalry.

Associated Press journalist Rod McGuirk contributed to this report from Canberra, Australia.

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