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South China Sea

Australia, Philippines discuss joint patrols in South China Sea

Manila tries to counter 'aggressive activities' by Beijing in strategic waterway

Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles speaks during a news conference with Philippines Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. at Camp Aguinaldo, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, on Feb 22.   © Reuters

MANILA (Reuters) --  The Philippines and Australia on Wednesday discussed pursuing joint patrols in the South China Sea, days after the Southeast Asian country held similar talks with the United States on the need to counter China's assertiveness in the strategic waterway.

Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles met with Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez in Manila, something they said they plan to do yearly to deepen their security ties.

"We did talk today about the possibility of exploring joint patrols and we will continue that work and we hope that comes to fruition soon," Marles said at a joint news conference.

"As countries which are committed to the global rules-based order, it is natural that we should think about ways in which we can cooperate in this respect."

With some overlapping maritime claims, the Philippines is ramping up its attempts to counter what it describes as China's "aggressive activities" in the South China Sea, which has also become a flashpoint for Chinese and U.S. tensions around naval operation.

On Tuesday, a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) aircraft flew over the South China Sea, as part of efforts to boost its presence in contested waters and protect what it says is its maritime territory.

In a statement, the PCG said it saw a Chinese coast guard vessel and dozens of what it suspected were boats manned by Chinese militia around the Second Thomas and Sabina Shoals, both of which are inside the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

The PCG ordered the suspected militia to leave, telling them "they were not authorised to loiter nor swarm these shoals."

China's embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The possibility of the Philippines and Australia holding joint patrols comes on the heels of similar discussions between Manila and Washington about conducting joint coast guard patrols, including in the South China Sea.

Military ties between Australia and the Philippines date back to 1922 and the two nations have an agreement on visiting forces that provides a legal and operational framework for defence activities.

Galvez on Tuesday had a call with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin where they discussed resumption of combined maritime activities in the South China Sea, according to a Pentagon statement.

They talked about "concerning developments" including a Feb. 6 incident in which China's coast guard directed a military-grade laser at the crew of a Philippine coast guard vessel around Second Thomas Shoal.

China has said the Philippines' account did not reflect the truth and that its actions were legal.

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