By Brad Lendon, CNN
(CNN) — The United States military kicked off two weeks of multilateral exercises with its Philippine allies and multiple international partners on Monday amid rising tensions between Manila and Beijing over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Maritime Training Activity Sama Sama 2023 is the seventh and largest iteration of the drills as participants from Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the United Kingdom and Malaysia join the US and the Philippines, according to a US Navy press release.
The exercises off the Philippine coast will include drills on anti-submarine, surface and air warfare as well as land phases, the release said.
“In Tagalog ‘Sama Sama’ is a phrase that means ‘together’ and there could not be a better phrase to capture the spirit of this exercise,” said Capt. Sean Lewis, commodore of the US Navy’s Destroyer Squadron 7, in the release.
“Together we can address a spectrum of security threats and enhance interoperability and with more nations participating than ever before, we can increase innovation and build a ready, united force that ensures stability in the region,” he said.
Stability in the region is seen as being increasingly threatened by confrontations between Chinese coast guard and maritime militia units and Philippine vessels around disputed features in the South China Sea.
“From territorial defense to countering transnational crimes, ‘Samasama’ [helps] us to face an array of threats together,” the chief of the Philippine Navy, Vice Adm. Toribio Adaci Jr, said at opening ceremonies in Manila on Monday, according to the state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA).
In an exclusive interview with CNN last week, Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. equated Chinese behavior in the region to that of a schoolyard bully.
Recent incidents that have the region on edge include Chinese water cannons blocking the resupply of a shipwrecked Philippine military outpost, and a lone Filipino diver cutting through a floating Chinese barrier. Earlier this year, the Philippine coast guard accused a Chinese coast guard ship of pointing a “military grade” laser at some of its crew, temporarily blinding them.
“I cannot think of any clearer case of bullying than this,” Teodoro said. “It’s not the question of stealing your lunch money, but it’s really a question of stealing your lunch bag, your chair and even enrollment in school.”
Beijing says it is Manila that’s stoking tensions.
“The current maritime conflicts between China and the Philippines are mainly caused by the Philippine side constantly stirring up troubles and spreading false information,” China’s Foreign Ministry told CNN.
China says Philippine vessels are intruding on its territory in the Spratly Island chain, despite a 2016 international tribunal ruling rejecting Beijing’s claim.
China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over almost all 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea, and most of the islands and sandbars within it, including many features that are hundreds of miles from mainland China. Along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also hold competing claims.
Sama Sama features more than 1,800 personnel from the participating countries, many aboard warships from the Philippines, the US, the UK, Japan and Canada. The exercises will take place in the Philippine Naval Forces Southern Luzon area, with headquarters on the country’s Pacific coast, almost 300 miles (480 kilometers) southeast of Manila and about 560 miles (900 kilometers) from the Spratly Islands, according to the PNA.
Sama Sama will run through October 13.
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