Thousands of US and Philippine troops began annual military exercises yesterday that Manila said were vital to building its defence capabilities to face the rising threat of China.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario used the launch of the 12-day Balikatan manoeuvres to accuse China of destabilising Asia with aggressive and illegal actions in the South China Sea.
"For our region excessive and exaggerated maritime and territorial claims have not only created uncertainty but have undermined the rule of law," del Rosario said in a speech at the Philippines' military headquarters. "Regional peace and stability have been placed at serious risk."
Del Rosario later said he was referring specifically to China.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, including waters and tiny outcrops near the coasts of smaller neighbours such as the Philippines. Tensions have escalated in recent years as China has sought to stamp its authority over the region.
The Philippines has accused China of occupying a shoal close to its main island and appealed to the UN to rule on the validity of Chinese claims to the resource-rich sea. China's navy last month began patrolling disputed waters, sending vessels to within 80 kilometres of the Malaysian coast and at firing "warning signal shells" at a Vietnamese boat.
Amid the rising tensions, the Philippines has sought closer diplomatic and military ties with the United States, its former colonial ruler. The two share a 61-year-old defence pact that requires the US to come to the Philippines' aid if it is attacked.
Del Rosario said the Balikatan exercises were a very important part of the Philippines' efforts to secure US support.
"For my country, we need to secure our borders and protect our territorial integrity more vigorously than we have before," he said.
The manoeuvres involve more than 8,000 US and Filipino troops, 30 military aircraft including a dozen US F/A-18 Hornets, and three naval vessels, the two countries said.