(MANILA) The Philippines and the United States will carry out their largest joint military maneuvers in April, officials from the two allies said on Tuesday, as they seek to thwart China’s growing influence in the region.

“All armed forces have the right to conduct military exercises,” said Col. Michael Logico, Filipino spokesman for the operation, dubbed Balikatan, which means “side by side” in Filipino. “It’s really part of our combat readiness,” he added.

The annual drills, scheduled for April 11-28, will include live ammunition firing in the South China Sea for the first time and a simulated defense of a Philippine islet nearly 300 kilometers south of Taiwan.

The maneuvers will involve 17,680 troops (about 12,000 Americans and 5,000 Filipinos as well as 111 Australians), about twice as many as in 2022, Logico said. A US official confirmed these figures.

Rising tensions around Taiwan, an island that Beijing considers part of China, and the construction of new bases in the South China Sea have strengthened the partnership between Washington and Manila, under the aegis of a defense treaty mutual.

For the first time, frigates from the Philippine and US navies will fire towards the South China Sea from the waters of Zambales province, north of Manila, Logico said. Previous live fire exercises took place on land.

The two allies will also organize an unprecedented amphibious landing on the western island of Palawan, the part of the Philippine archipelago closest to the Spratly Islands, claimed by Beijing.

One of the drills further calls for the landing of military helicopters on Calayan Island, at the northern end of the main island of Luzon.

The Americans will also use their Patriot missiles, considered one of the best air defense systems in the world, and the HIMARS precision rocket system.

The announcement comes less than six weeks after Manila and Washington decided to relaunch joint patrols in the South China Sea and struck a deal allowing US troops access to four additional military bases in the Southeast Asian country. East.

Manila and Washington are trying to mend ties that had been strained under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, the predecessor of Ferdinand Marcos, in power since June 2022.

Mr. Marcos assures that he will not let China nibble away at the maritime zone of the Philippines, while Mr. Duterte was reluctant to criticize Beijing.