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US, Filipino forces plan drills near disputed area

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — U.S. and Philippine marines plan to hold combat drills at an oil rig in the South China Sea to bolster the defense of such sensitive facilities in a bold move that may provoke protests from China, which claims waters in or near the location.
Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban, commander of the Philippine military's Western Command, said Thursday the exercises will be held in March or April off western Palawan province and should not alarm China because these will be done within Philippine territorial waters.
The drills involve U.S. Marines training their Philippine counterparts in defending and retaking oil and gas rigs captured by security threats like terrorists, Sabban said, adding military organizers from both sides did not contemplate on China as an imaginary target when they planned the drills.
"We need this special training so we can defend our oil and gas platforms," Sabban told The Associated Press. "We're doing it in an actual oil rig. We have many of these oil rigs we need to protect."
The drills are part of an annual joint military exercises by the longtime defense allies called Balikatan, which aims to improve the capability of the two countries' forces to respond militarily to threats that include terrorists, pirates and smugglers or deal with natural disasters.
The Balikatan or "shoulder-to-shoulder" exercises have mostly been done around the main northern Luzon island in past years but will be held in Palawan for nearly a month starting in mid-March. More than 500 U.S. soldiers and marines, along with their warships and aircraft, will take part in the exercises with about 1,000 Filipino military personnel, Sabban said.
Aside from the combat drills, the military participants will undertake school repairs and medical missions.
"It's an annual exercise and should not cause any concern to China," Sabban said.
Still, the Balikatan exercises may likely invite Chinese protests.
Palawan province lies near the Spratlys, a potentially oil- and gas-rich chain of islands, shoals, coral outcrops and sand bars being disputed by China and the Philippines, along with Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. The Spratlys have long been feared as Asia's next potential flashpoint for conflict.
China, which claims virtually all of the South China Sea on historical grounds, has routinely protested military exercises near the disputed territories. The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to an AP request for a comment.
Sabban said the upcoming oil rig drills will be held in Philippine waters northwest of Palawan near an area called Malampaya, site of the country's largest natural gas field.
The AP has learned that China last year claimed new territory in or near the venue of the planned drills.
China protested in July a publicly-announced plan by the Philippine government to explore for oil and gas in waters called "areas 3 and 4," the nearest point of which lies less than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Palawan. The Philippines has dismissed China's claims, arguing the areas were well within the country's territorial waters and too far off mainland China, Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug Jr. has said.
The new areas being claimed by China are not part of the Spratlys.
The Philippines has appropriated more funds to protect Malampaya and outlying waters and secure foreign companies exploring for oil and gas, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said Thursday.
"What creates uncertainty is this looming threat coming from China," Abad said. "It hasn't really helped the cause of everybody who are active players in the region for China to be unpredictable and for countries not to be able to read the direction of Chinese government policy."
Beijing has been asserting its territorial claims more aggressively as its economic and diplomatic muscle has grown. In March, two Chinese vessels tried to drive away a Philippine oil exploration ship from Reed Bank, another area west of Palawan.
Two Philippine air force planes were deployed, but the Chinese vessels had disappeared by the time they reached the submerged bank.
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report.
By JIM GOMEZ | Associated Press – Thu, Jan 19, 2012
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