- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - More than 1,500 U.S. and Filipino marines on Thursday began annual exercises to improve combat readiness and better respond to humanitarian crises in the Philippines, which is frequently hit by powerful typhoons and is locked in a territorial dispute with China.

Field training drills during the nine-day Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise will be held at five military camps in the northern Philippines, said Col. Nathaniel Casem, the Philippines’ director of the exercises. Command post exercises involving computer simulations and humanitarian projects will take place in western Palawan, the province closest to disputed areas of the South China Sea.

At least 860 U.S. Marines from Okinawa, Japan, and 749 Filipino counterparts are taking part in the drills.

U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, the U.S. exercise director, said the two countries’ security alliance has been upheld over the years through their close working relationship.

Noting the territorial disputes, Kennedy told the opening ceremony of the drills that if anyone challenged the Philippines’ sovereignty, the U.S. “would respond within a matter of hours, and generally, I assure you that that is not a hallow promise.”

Kennedy left after the ceremony without taking questions.

Washington has said many times that it does not take sides in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which involve the Philippines, China and four other governments. But it has declared it has a national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflights in the area, where much of the world’s oil and trade passes.

The underfunded Philippine military has turned to the U.S. to acquire used warships and planes as the territorial rifts have intensified in recent years.

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