(MANILA) The Philippines and the United States began the largest joint military maneuvers in their history on Tuesday, as the two historic allies seek to counter China’s influence in the region.

Some 18,000 soldiers, about double last year, take part in these annual two-week exercises called “ Balikatan ” (“Side by side” in Filipino). For the first time, the operations will include live ammunition firing in the South China Sea, almost all of which Beijing claims.

The joint maneuvers come as China conducted extensive military drills around Taiwan from Saturday to Monday, simulating targeted strikes and a total blockade of the island, to protest a visit to the United States by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing. -wen.

These Chinese exercises officially ended on Monday, but Taiwan again detected several Chinese warships and aircraft near its territory on Tuesday.

“ Balikatan ” plans to land helicopters on a Philippine island off the northern end of the main island of Luzon, about 300 km from Taiwan.

“To protect our sovereign territory, we really have to practice taking back an island that has been taken from us,” Colonel Michael Logico, spokesman for the Philippine Armed Forces, told reporters after the ceremony marking the start of the maneuvers in a military camp in Manila.

It is the first time that these exercises have taken place under the mandate of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who is seeking to improve relations with Washington, damaged by his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.

In recent months, Manila and Washington have relaunched their joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea, and reached an agreement aimed at increasing the American military presence in the Philippines.

Under the deal, US troops will be allowed to use four additional Philippine military bases, including a naval base not far from Taiwan.

Proximity to Taiwan could make the Philippines a key partner for the United States should China invade the democratic island it considers part of its territory.

During their joint press conference on Tuesday, however, the two armies did not raise this issue.

After the US-Philippines agreement on the bases, China accused the United States of “ endangering regional peace and stability ”.

“Countries in this part of the world must preserve their strategic independence, and firmly resist the mentality of cold war and confrontation between blocs”, protested last week the Chinese ambassador to Manila, Huang Xilian.

“ Balikatan ” mobilizes some 12,200 American soldiers, 5,400 Filipinos and just over a hundred Australians.

The exercises will notably simulate an amphibious landing on the island of Palawan, in the west of the archipelago, near the Spratly Islands claimed by both China and the Philippines.

The US military will also use Patriot missiles, considered one of the best air defense systems in the world, and the Himars precision rocket system, which helped Ukrainian forces fight off Russian invaders.

The two armies had originally planned live ammunition firing at sea off the northern province of Ilocos Norte, about 355 kilometers off the southern coast of Taiwan. But that drill will eventually take place in the South China Sea, Philippine Army Maj. Gen. Marvin Licudin said.

The initial site was “not sufficiently prepared” to unload the necessary equipment, he justified.

The new site is less than 300 km east of the Scarborough Reef, which Beijing and Manila also dispute.

The exercises will improve “tactics, techniques and procedures in a wide range of military operations”, said Colonel Medel Aguilar, spokesman for the Philippine army.

About 50 left-wing protesters gathered outside the venue of the opening ceremony on Tuesday, calling on the Philippine government to call off the drills.