PHILIPPINE Navy troops held sea drills with their Australian counterparts at the weekend supposedly to boost security in the Indo-Pacific region.

In a statement on Monday, the Philippine Navy said its missile-frigate and two royal Australian navy vessels had participated in the drills. It didn’t say where these took place.

The ships sailed together to Manila on Sunday morning after the Sept. 25 exercises, the Australian Embassy in Manila said in a separate statement.

“The exercise focused on high-end training and interoperability that will benefit both nations in increased maritime domain awareness and force generation,” it added.

The Aussie ships and a fleet replenishment vessel docked in Manila on Sunday for a three-day port visit as part of a regional activity that engages Southeast Asian countries.

The drills showed the “increasing mutual trust and cooperation between the Australian Defense Force and the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven J. Robinson said in the statement.

“It is part of our robust and longstanding engagement with the Philippines to promote a secure, open, prosperous, and resilient region,” he added.

Last week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. said the Philippines was backing a defense pact that allows Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines using technology that the US had only previously shared with Britain, saying it could keep the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.

His view differs from that of neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, which warned that the alliance could provoke a nuclear arms race in the region. Singapore was more neutral, saying it hoped the deal “would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture.”

China, the unspoken target of Washington’s latest effort to boost its influence in the region, criticized the agreement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has said the pact seriously undermined regional peace and stability, exacerbated the arms race and undermined international nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

He also said any regional alliance “should not target or harm the interests of third parties.”

Mr. Locsin noted that without the actual presence of nuclear weapons, the military alliance does not violate a 1995 treaty to keep nuclear arms out of Southeast Asia.

But presidential spokesman Herminio L. Roque, Jr. said the Constitution “provides for a nuclear-free Philippines and we are also party to the ASEAN-Bangkok accord providing for a nuclear-free Southeast Asia.”

“The immediate concern of the Philippines is to ensure that… its treaty providing for a nuclear-free Southeast Asia will not be violated,” he told a televised news briefing on Monday.

The South China Sea is a prominent shipping passage with $5.3 trillion worth of trade cruising through its waters every year. That’s nearly a third of all global sea trade.

It remains a source of tension as the US, one of the Philippines’ oldest allies, and other Western countries hold so-called freedom of navigation operations to keep China, which claims more than 80% of the sea, at bay.

In July, China warned the UK Carrier Strike Group, led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, not to commit “improper acts” as it entered the South China Sea. China claims more than 80% of the waterway.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte, who has sought closer and investment ties with China since he became President in 2016, has said the Philippines could not afford war with China, adding that the sea dispute should be resolved peacefully.

Mr. Locsin said Australia’s ability to project power should restore and keep the balance of power rather than destabilize it.

He also noted that despite advances in military science, time, distance and water remain major constants in determining security capacity to respond to threats.

The trilateral military alliance had incensed France, which felt its Indo-Pacific interests had been torpedoed by the submarine deal. The pact brought its own 2016 deal to build submarines for Australia to an abrupt end.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that in spite of the hard feelings among rivals and allies, the deal with the US and Britain was an opportunity his country could not turn down. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

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