MANILA, Philippines — American forces and their allies in Asia are ready for battle after years of joint combat exercises, a United States general said Wednesday, adding that Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine should serve as a warning to potential Asian aggressors like China and North Korea.
U.S. treaty allies like the Philippines, Japan and Australia, among others, “have shown that they will band together, that they will not stand for aggression from these nations that have decided they want to change the world order out here,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan said.
Although Asia has no counterpart to NATO, the 30-nation military alliance whose mostly European members vow to defend each other against external attacks, a network of U.S. treaty alliances and defense partnerships upholding the international order provides a regional safeguard, he said.
“I’m personally very buoyed by what I see by our allies and partners in this region and the way we’ve come together in response to aggression by the PRC, by North Korea to say, 'We will not let that stand,’” Ryan told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday, using the acronym for China’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.
Ryan, Commanding General of the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division based in Hawaii, is in Manila partly for talks with Philippine counterparts ahead of two annual largescale combat exercises that would include live-fire exercises and ground, sea and air assault maneuvers involving thousands of U.S. and Filipino troops in March and April.
The Philippines, America’s oldest treaty ally in Asia that used to host the largest U.S. naval and air force bases outside the American mainland, has allowed larger numbers of visiting U.S. forces to stay in rotating batches and preposition weapons and combat equipment in at least nine Philippine military camps under a 2014 defense pact. The Philppine decision to allow a broader American military presence was announced during a visit last week to Manila by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
In the broader Asia-Pacific region, Washington has reinforced an arc of alliances to counter what it says are threats posed by an increasingly belligerent China and North Korea.
China has frowned on combat exercises involving the Americans in coastal areas facing the South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety, and has accused Washington of meddling in Asian disputes and dangerously militarizing the region by regularly deploying U.S. Navy warships and jet fighters.
More recent venues of large-scale exercises by American and Filipino forces included coastal Philippine provinces close to the disputed South China Sea, where China has taken increasingly assertive actions to cement its territorial claims, and in the northern Luzon region, which lies across a narrow sea border from Taiwan.
Combat-readiness exercises hopefully would make potential aggressors think twice, Ryan said.
The U.S. and the Philippines have agreed to hold about 500 small and major combat exercises in 2023 and expand annual military drills following disruptions caused by two years of coronavirus lockdowns, according to Philippine military officials.
“That does provide some deterrent effect against an adversary in the region, who would look at that and say, ‘I don’t want to take a step that may cause a government, a politician, to decide to go because I don’t know that I can win if I’ve got to face that trained, ready force,’” Ryan said.
While military commanders say the joint exercises are not directed against any particular country, Ryan said China’s increasingly aggressive actions were an alarming reality the region should brace for.
“Does the backdrop of PRC aggression enter our minds when we train? Absolutely,” he said, and in the case of the Philippines, U.S. forces needed to be ready to fulfill their obligations under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
“We feel duty-bound to ensure that the Philippines can maintain and will maintain their sovereignty,” Ryan said. “So aggression from the People’s Republic of China that makes our treaty ally uncomfortable makes us uncomfortable.”
The Philippines filed nearly 200 diplomatic protests in 2022 alone against China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, a resource-rich and busy waterway where Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also lay overlapping territorial claims.
Asked if U.S. forces and their Asian allies were ready to respond if a major crisis similar to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine breaks out in the region, Ryan said, “Absolutely.”
“I’m very comfortable that we’re ready but that doesn’t mean I’m satisfied. We can always get better,” said Ryan, who commands about 12,000 soldiers under his infantry division.
He said experts would be flown in from Hawaii to train American and Filipino army troops in jungle survival and combat tactics during the Salaknib, the first of two major combat-readiness exercises starting next month in the Philippines.
Ryan said America’s adversaries should consider political dialogue and diplomacy because “war is complicated … it’s violent, it can go a number of different ways. Russia found that out. They continue to find that out.”
“We thought that Ukraine would quickly succumb to Russian military power. That didn’t happen,” he said. “The most important reason in my view, by far, was the will of the Ukraine people to fight.”
It was also crucial that the United States and NATO had helped train Ukrainian troops and enhanced their capabilities to deal with security contingencies for years before Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, he said.
“I think our allies in the region value their sovereignty, value their freedom, value their independence. And no adversary should take that lightly,” Ryan said.
Associated Press journalists Aaron Favila and Joeal Calupitan contributed to this report.