Marines Begin Training in the Philippines as South China Sea Tensions Seethe

Singapore Army soldiers observe U.S. Marines firing Singaporean Assault Rifle 21 service rifles on a 100-meter range during Exercise Valiant Mark 2022 on Pasir Laba Camp, Singapore.
Singapore Army soldiers observe U.S. Marines, with Marine Rotational Force-Southeast Asia (MRF-SEA), I Marine Expeditionary Force firing Singaporean Assault Rifle 21 service rifles on a 100-meter range during Exercise Valiant Mark 2022 at the Multi-Mission Range Complex on Pasir Laba Camp, Singapore, Dec. 2, 2022. (Sgt. Ryan H. Pulliam/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

The Marine Corps kicked off a joint exercise in the Philippines this week, marking the second rotation for the service's newly formed rotational force as tensions flare in the Pacific.

The Marine Rotational Force-Southeast Asia, also known as MRF-SEA, was created to better foster relations with military allies in Southeast Asia as the U.S. focuses its attention toward the Pacific and China's increasingly aggressive presence there.

MRF-SEA began its deployment last month to the Philippines, which is mired in a dispute with Beijing over fishing territory. On Monday, Marines and sailors started a two-week training operation with the Philippine, Malaysian and Indonesian militaries as part of what was termed "security cooperation engagements."

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"Leading Marine Rotational Force-Southeast Asia while shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners, inside their respective command posts, provides a remarkable and dynamic vantage point," Col. Thomas Siverts, the commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit -- the unit controlling the rotational force, said in a press release this week.

"We are enabling operations that span the vast expanse of the Indo-Pacific region, demonstrating our adaptability in pursuit of our mission," he added.

The exercise comes just a week after Manila's coast guard removed a Beijing-ordered barrier that was obstructing Filipino fishing vessels from accessing a shoal 150 miles off the west coast of the Philippines. The shoal has long been an area of contention between the two countries, with China pushing its territorial claims up against international boundaries.

The training operation is called Sama Sama, meaning "together" in Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines. It is MRF-SEA's second rotation in its role as a "scalable" force west of the international dateline, though the size of the recently deployed unit was not immediately clear Wednesday.

The press release said that MRF-SEA serves as a "flexible" force for commanders in the Pacific and "can be adjusted to fit the specific needs of the theater" by changing composition, number and duration of operations, according to the Marines.

"This unique setup emphasizes our commitment to shared security objectives and enhances our collaboration with allies and partners in a rapidly changing environment," Siverts said.

The deployment is part of what the military refers to as a "collective defense" in the Pacific. Along with Marine Rotational Force-Darwin, an Australia-based task force, the Marine Corps has continued to train with several countries near China in an effort to check Beijing's influence in the South China Sea.

The MRF-SEA exercises will include helicopter and amphibious operations, as well as coastal defense training, raids and reconnaissance. It is led by a small command element supported by drone, explosive ordnance and naval elements.

International partners are expected to train with the Marines on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense as well as information operations -- a warfare domain that has seen increased importance in not only the tension in the Pacific, but other conflicts like that between Ukraine and Russia in Eastern Europe.

Command and control of the task force originates from the U.S. West Coast, according to the release.

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at Follow him on X @df_lawrence.

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