The US military has revealed for the first time that American warships have been conducting joint patrols with the Philippines in the disputed South China
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made the revelation on Thursday at a press conference with Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmi in Manila.
Carter also said that more US forces and aircraft will be rotated through the Philippines, boosting the American military presence there.
“These patrols will continue to help build our inter-operability and improve the Philippine Navy,” the Pentagon chief said.
The comments come as the United States
, Australia and the Philippines are conducting joint military exercises in the region. The 11-day drills were launched earlier this month and will conclude on Friday.
The war games are part of the annual Balikatan military exercises between Washington and Manila. Australian troops have participated in the drills since 2014.
China has repeatedly criticized US military presence in the region and suspects the military drills are part of efforts to contain Beijing.
The South China Sea has become a source of tension between China, the US, and some of Washington’s regional allies. The territory is rich in mineral resources and lies on a crucial trade route.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, despite partial counterclaims by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. China is also locked in disputes with Japan and South Korea over the East China Sea.
In recent years, China has built major structures including radar systems and air strips over reclaimed reefs and outcrops.
Washington has sent bombers and warships on patrol close to the Chinese construction activity in recent months, infuriating Beijing.