Manila: The Philippines and the United States will begin war games near disputed South China Sea waters this week, showcasing fast-expanding military ties and likely further stoking tensions with China.
The annual exercises, which involve 2,300 marines from both sides, will take place amid the backdrop of ongoing negotiations to further increase an American military presence and the deployment of its hardware in the former US colony.
They also come three weeks before US President Barack Obama is due to visit Manila, a huge moment for the Philippines as it looks for US support amid a worsening row with China over rival claims to parts of the South China Sea.
"The Chinese will view these military exercises as yet another example of the Philippines stirring up tensions in the South China Sea and of the US taking advantage of the situation to increase its military presence," regional security expert Ian Storey told AFP.
Beijing, which insists it has sovereignty to nearly all of the South China Sea, has repeatedly railed at the Philippines for refusing to back down in the territorial dispute and seeking to draw the US closer.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have competing claims to parts of the sea, which is believed to sit atop vast deposits of fossil fuels, but China has been particularly angered at the Philippines for being the most vocal.
For the Philippines, the dispute will continue to be "the central driver" of efforts to intensify its alliance with the US, according to Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
The Philippine-US Amphibious Landing Exercises (Phiblex) will begin tomorrow at a naval base in Zambales, a province on the western coast of Luzon island facing the South China Sea.
It is about 220 kilometres from Scarborough Shoal, a group of rocky outcrops in the Philippines` internationally recognised exclusive economic zone which has been occupied by Chinese vessels since last year.
Scarborough Shoal has become the prime focus of the territorial dispute in recent weeks, with the Philippines accusing China of erecting concrete structures there.
The war games, which will last three weeks, will involve two US warships and live ground fire exercises, according to the Philippine military.
Staff planning exercises will also be held "that will increase the capability to conduct bilateral maritime security and territorial defence operation", the US embassy said in a statement.
Neither side, however, would release the specific locations for the sea drills.