Philippines-US war games begin in South China Sea
Shirley Escalante and wires
Joint military exercises between the Philippines and the United States have begun in the South China Sea amid an increasingly tense territorial dispute with China.
Almost 7,000 Filipino and American troops are taking part in the 12 days of exercises, which include training on maritime security, counter-terrorism and disaster response.
The exercises are taking place in the south-western province of Palawan, closest to the disputed Spratly Islands.
Tensions spiked last week when the Philippines sent its biggest warship to a tiny shoal about 230 kilometres west of the county's main island of Luzon where eight Chinese fishing boats had been seen.
Military spokesman Arnulfo Burgos said there were no signs the Scarborough Shoal stand-off had affected the exercises.
Philippines' armed forces chief Jessie Dellosa said the war games highlighted strong US support for its weaker ally.
"The conduct of this annual event reflects the aspirations to further relations with our strategic ally, a commitment that has to be nurtured especially in the context of the evolving challenges in the region," he said.
Meanwhile, about 70 demonstrators stormed the US Embassy in Manila on Monday, protesting against the military exercises.
"We all should be united in protest and we need to kick out the American soldiers that we all know are not really helping the Filipinos," said protest leader Mark Louie Aquino.
China and Taiwan claim nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.
The competing claims have for decades made the sea -- where there are shipping routes vital for global trade and which is believed to hold huge deposits of fossil fuels -- a potential flashpoint for military conflict.