The 20th Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise between the Philippines and the United States started last June 26, a few months after the supposed end of the Balikatan exercises.
According to the US embassy, this year’s CARAT exercise is being held in several strategic locations in the country, including Subic Bay, San Antonio in Zambales, and Sangley Point and Ternate in Cavite.
The exercises are nothing new, as previous CARAT exercises were held in Mindanao, Palawan, Subic Bay, Cebu, and other locations.
“CARAT Philippines is part of a broader bilateral exercise series the US Navy conducts with nine partner navies in South and Southeast Asia to address shared maritime security priorities, strengthen maritime partnerships, and enhance interoperability among participating navies,” the US embassy said in a press statement.
The Philippines has participated since the series began in 1995, and CARAT exercises over the past two decades are considered to be clear examples of the long-standing and close US-Philippines navy-to-navy relationship.
The 2014 CARAT series, which started last May, is also currently being held in other Asian countries such as Malaysia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Timor-Leste.
The exercises, as claimed, are meant to fortify the capabilities of both forces in amphibious operations, special operations and enhancing information-sharing.
“This exercise we are in now, is designed to improve our inter-operability, build our relationships, so we know each other better and be able to do more complex things in support of one another, whatever the event might be,” remarks U.S. Navy Fleet Commander Stuart Musch.
The seeming focus on countries bordering China and Southeast Asia has been described by both critics and analysts as a strategic move by the United States, in response to the military expansion of China in the South China Sea.
This year’s CARAT Philippines will focus on combined operations at sea, amphibious landings, diving and salvage, and maritime patrol and reconnaissance flights.
“Sailors and Marines will exchange best practices and share information with their Philippine Armed Forces counterparts during multiple professional exchanges and seminars ashore,” the US Embassy told the public.
“Civil action projects, community service events and band concerts will facilitate interaction with the local community,” the US Embassy added.
Five warships, including a U.S. guided-missile destroyer and about 1,000 troops will take part in week-long Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises, which include live-fire drills 40 miles (64 km) off Zambales.
The drills are to be held about 80 nautical miles offshore, near a patrol of Chinese coastguard ships stationed at the entrance to Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef.
When Navy Fleet Commander Jaime Bernardino was asked what the Philippine troops would do if there was an invasion, he answered:
“How do you exactly respond? My answer there, is the exact response to any incident out there, is dictated by our national leadership. Whatever they want us to do, we will do,” he said.
The Philippine Navy said the drills were a regular annual event and has no relation to the tensions in the region, but observers and concerned protest groups are not convinced.
News reports verify that tensions have escalated in recent months, with China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
China considers 90 percent of the sea its property, as it is potentially rich in oil and gas and fisheries.
The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the waters, and China is accusing the U.S. of making moves to provoke tension, by showing support for its regional allies, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines.