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Filipino, US troops hold drills near disputed sea

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SAN ANTONIO, PHILIPPINES (AP): More than 100 Filipino and US marines in assault amphibious vehicles conducted a mock assault on imaginary enemies in military drills Monday on a beach in northwestern Philippines facing the South China Sea, where Manila is locked in a territorial dispute with China.

The amphibious tanks sailed from a US ship anchored a distance away, then rolled onto the beach of San Antonio, Zambales, northwest of the Philippine capital Manila, disgorging the Filipino and American sailors and marines armed with automatic rifles.

The exercise is part of the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training that the US conducts with its allies in Asia, including the Philippines, to address maritime security, strengthen partnerships and enhance interoperability.

Officials said the manoeuvres were not directed at China, which has been criticised for its increasingly assertive behaviour in disputed South China Sea territories.

The Philippines, the oldest of Washington's five defence treaty allies in Asia, has turned to the US to modernise its ill-equipped military amid the increasingly tense territorial rifts with China.

"Whenever we do an exercise, we always train to improve our capabilities, it is not meant for whatever threat or situation that are current," said Philippine Navy Commodore Roland Joseph Mercado.

Marine Maj Damon Torres, commanding officer of the US landing force in the exercise, said the drills were a good opportunity to coordinate and learn about each other's capabilities.

China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims in potentially oil- and gas-rich areas in the busy South China Sea, with Beijing laying claim to virtually the entire body of water.

The disputes between Beijing and Manila have worsened since Chinese government ships effectively gained control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in 2012 then blockaded the Second Thomas Shoal, where Philippine marines have been based on a grounded navy ship since 1999.

Scarborough Shoal lies around 150 kilometres west where Monday's exercise was held.

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