Monday, February 11, 2019

Army chief calls for community participation vs insurgency

From the Philippine Information Agency (Feb 11, 2019): Army chief calls for community participation vs insurgency

CAMP EVANGELISTA, Cagayan de Oro City -- "Plan well, think forward and use all available resources, maximize the participation of community and all stakeholders. Let us leave no breathing room for the enemy to regroup or regain foothold. Let us fight to win."

These were the words of army commanding general LtGen Macairog S Alberto, in his message, as the guest of honor and speaker during a change of command ceremony held at Camp Evangelista in Cagayan de Oro.

Lt Gen Alberto encouraged all the diamond troopers to accord to the newly installed 4th Infantry Division (4ID) commander, Brig Gen Franco Nemecia M Gacal, who succeeded Maj Gen Ronald C Villanueva, same support as the previous commander in order to sustain the momentum in fighting insurgency to its final push with solid result.

Since its activation, 4ID has been at the forefront of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) internal security operation in addressing security threats in Eastern Mindanao, Caraga and portion of Region 10 which aims to attain a physically and psychologically secured environment conducive to socio-economic development.

For the past three years, the division has neutralized 1,101 communist NPA terrorist (CNTs), seized or captured 966 firearms, cleared 264 barangays from CNT’s affectation and significantly, it has facilitated the declaration of province of Bukidnon as conflict manageable and ready for further development.
Philippine Army commanding general LtGen Macairog S Alberto presided over the Change of Command ceremony at 4th Infantry Division (4ID). He stressed on the need to plan well, think forward and use all available resources, maximize the participation of community and all stakeholders in addressing insurgency. (PIA10)

The ceremony was highlighted by the traditional turnover of command and symbol from the commander, MGen Villanueva who is set to bow-out from the military service to the incoming BGen Gacal.

Gacal is a member of the Philippine Military Academy “Maringal” Class of 1988. He is a special forces and well-rounded military officer with expertise in resource management and managerial acumen; and a graduate of Master in Strategic Studies, Peace and Security Stabilization Course, International Fellows Academic Preparatory Course and Senior Service College and Joint Professional Military Education all from United States Army War College in Pennsylvania, USA.

Prior to his new post, he served as the commander of 402nd Infantry “Stinger” Brigade since 2016 which makes him best-fitted to stir the helms of the Division for being accustomed to the sociological and security situation in the area and had already established “teamwork” for peace and development with local governments units in the region.

In his remarks, BGen Gacal expressed his gratitude to the AFP chief of staff and commanding general of PA, General Benjamin Madrigal Jr., LtGen Alberto, for bestowing him the trust and confidence to lead the noble warriors of 4ID.

He also pledged to continue building the 4ID into a formidable, deterrent and fighting force in order to contribute for national development with culture of peace and unity.

Gacal emphasized to give importance to collaboration and stakeholders engagement in addressing variuos security concerns.

“After all security is and shall always be a shared responsibility,” Gacal said.

On operationalization of Executive Order 70 which calls for ‘whole of nation’ approach in combatting insurgency, Gacal said they will embark on a peaceful war which intends to build partnerships, reconnecting our government and private entities with geographically distant communities to bring back to the functions of society to be no longer isolated and disadvantaged.

P188.2 billion allocated for defense department in 2019

From the Philippine Information Agency (Feb 11, 2019): P188.2 billion allocated for defense department in 2019

Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno of the Department of Budget and Management gave his lecture on the Economics of Government Defense Spending at Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on Thursday.

The budget chief discussed the Philippine economy in relation with the rest of the world and the importance of national security.

“You cannot have people engage in vibrant economic activity with armed conflict happening at the same time and place. That is not possible… This is why national security is very much intertwined with socio-economic development,” he stressed.

Secretary Diokno also discussed defense spending in the proposed 2019 National Budget, highlighting the targets that defense programs have to meet.

“The Philippine government has allocated and spent billions on the enhancement of the country’s defense capability over the years. The Duterte administration will sustain this commitment by allocating P188.2 billion to the defense sector for 2019” in order to maintain and expand the country’s defense capabilities against foreign and domestic threats.

The revised AFP modernization program, and adjusted compensation and rice subsidy for Military and Uniformed Personnel were also discussed by the budget secretary.

“Without national security, we would not be able to experience the socio-economic development the country has experienced so far: more jobs, higher wages, and a higher standard of living for every Filipino” Diokno shared.

The lecture was attended by graduate students taking up their one-year master’s degree in National Security Administration at the National Defense College of the Philippines in Camp Aguinaldo.

Why mandatory ROTC is needed again

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 11, 2019): Why mandatory ROTC is needed again

It has been almost two decades since the government made optional the Reserved Officers Training Corps for college students. And this only explains why most youths have only learned of it from social media or even from hearsays.

It is perhaps the reason why some of them do not get full comprehension of why it needs a comeback.

With the government seriously and consistently pushing for its revival, and with the military supporting this move, we ask, do we really have to make ROTC mandatory again?

In the first place, what really is ROTC?

Anywhere in the world, people look up to the military culture for discipline and responsibility.

Perhaps the most progressive and developed nations are also the ones that keep their defenses intact.

A Business Insider report names the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom with the most powerful militaries in the world.

These countries have been aggressive in producing more citizen assets -- participation among young people is also notable.

This suggests that military training aims to educate the youth and prepare them to be good citizens. Countries with a strong military foundation are less likely to be attacked.

The figures

Modeled from the US in 1916 during the time the Philippines was under their occupation, military training was introduced to the Philippines.

In 2018, US had the most number of armies worldwide, with 2,363,675. A consistent increase is noted since the last five years.

Meanwhile, in the country, there are only 59,637 graduates from both basic and advanced training of the ROTC in 2015-2016. In 2017-2018, it reached a low of 46,936.

The story behind

Brig. Gen. Rolando Rodil, commander of the AFP Reserve Command, a graduate of the ROTC himself, confessed to being dismayed when Congress moved to repeal it.

“When the ROTC became optional, government sort of abdicated its only opportunity to inculcate the values of patriotism, nationalism, character-building,” he said during the Philippine News Agency’s Pros and Cons episode aired online.

Since 2002, college students are instead required to choose among three NSTP components: the ROTC, the Civic Welfare Training Service (CWTS), and the Literacy Training Service (LTS).

“The other two components failed to really dish that (patriotism, nationalism, character-building) out for the youth,” Rodil said.

As everybody knows, it was the death of University of Santo Tomas student Mark Chua that triggered the program’s abolishment.

“What really went wrong was the abuse. Probably people thought it as an instrument of power. Mark Wilson Chua was an advocate of the ROTC, he was exposing the corruption. He was not against and even his father can attest to that," Rodil recalled.

Call to expedite reservists act

President Rodrigo Duterte has been bugging Congress to expedite the passage of Reservist Employment Rights Act.

The need to do so came after a series of threats from terrorist groups showing interest in Philippine territory -- the same group behind the senseless attack in Marawi City in Mindanao.

With the additional 524 military reservists rendered during the war in Marawi, government soldiers succeeded to defeat the terrorists.

The president, for his part, also expressed emphasis on putting the kind of men that will lead the program.

“The curriculum will only include soldiers of high morale, and has proven their value in the AFP,” AFP Public affairs chief, Col. Edgard Arevalo said in a separate interview.

Excited for a bigger number joining the force, Rodil said the ROTC "may not make you into a soldier overnight but it builds the kind of character in you that will one day become the leaders of this nation”.

Coast Guard, US agencies open training facility in Bulacan

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 11, 2019): Coast Guard, US agencies open training facility in Bulacan

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), together with its partners, inaugurated on Monday a PHP156-million training facility in this town that will boost the agency's capacity to train and sustain its personnel and equipment.

The facility is a joint project between the PCG, US Coast Guard, the Joint Interagency Task Force-West (JIATF-W), Joint US Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG), and the US Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

Admiral Elson Hermogino, PCG commandant, said the construction of the outboard motor center training facility is part of its capability building and stands on the Philippine Coast Guard Relay Station in this town dubbed as the Balagtas Project.

"The facility embraces the current trend in maritime competency and provides hands on training and at the same time, familiarizes the trainees on related theories on outboard motor repairs," Hermogino said.

The outboard motor center is seen to enhance PCG’s capacity to train and sustain its workforce and equipment. It was built under a local contract managed by the US Naval Facilities Engineering Command.

The PCG has in its inventory 300 aluminum boats and 50 rubber boats with outboard motors, which are deployed nationwide.

The PCG frontline units rely heavily on these aluminum and rubber boats in fulfilling their mandate.

These assets are primarily used in coastal law enforcement patrol, search and rescue and monitoring environmental laws compliance.

Last year, at least 40 PCG personnel were sent to the US Coast Guard Training School in Virginia to undergo different shipboard courses to include training on the maintenance of outboard motors.

For this year, the US government will place a mobile training team inside the training facility in Bulacan to train qualified PCG personnel to become instructors.

Police gears up for PMA homecoming, Panagbenga

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 11, 2019): Police gears up for PMA homecoming, Panagbenga

CAMP DANGWA, Benguet -- The Police Regional Office Cordillera (PROCOR) has laid down security preparations for the annual Philippine Military Academy (PMA) and flower festival revelries especially with the spate of bombings that happened in Mindanao, an official said on Monday.

“There are no monitored or reported threats pero patuloy ang pakikipag-ugnayan natin with our counterparts [in the Armed Force of the Philippines (AFP)] hindi lang sa Baguio at Benguet but the whole of the Cordillera (There are no monitored or reported threats but we continue to coordinate and collaborate with our counterparts in the Armed Forces of the Philippines not just in Baguio and Benguet but the whole Cordillera),” PROCOR regional director, Chief Supt. Rolando Nana said.

Nana has ordered all police units in the region, especially those in Baguio, to be vigilant with the Baguio Flower Festival (Panagbenga) still ongoing. The highlight events set on March 2 and 3 are expected to attract thousands of tourists.

Police authorities are also ready for the PMA alumni homecoming on February 16 when many ranking AFP and Philippine National Police officials are expected in the city for the event, Nana added.

“We are not prohibiting the use and bringing of backpacks but we have ordered our personnel to be vigilant and perform spot inspections if necessary and if they suspect anything unusual as a preventive measure,” Nana added.

He also said all security forces of the government are collaborating with the local government units, barangay officials and all sectors in the region to maintain peace and order in the Cordillera.

He also urged the public, those visiting Baguio and the rest of the Cordillera to enjoy their vacation and the beauty of the different tourist destinations in the region.

AFP, PNP, Coast Guard personnel get bus fare discounts

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 11, 2019): AFP, PNP, Coast Guard personnel get bus fare discounts

Personnel of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) may now avail of a 20 percent fare discount in all city and provincial public utility buses (PUBs).

This after the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) signed on Monday a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the AFP, PNP, and PCG granting fare discounts to the uniformed personnel.

Among those who signed the MOA are AFP Chief of Staff, Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr., PNP chief, Director General Oscar Albayalde, PCG Commandant, Admiral Elson Hermogino, LTFRB chairman Martin Delgra III, and participating bus operators.

“To avail of the fare discount, uniformed personnel from the aforementioned agencies are only required to present a valid ID as proof of active service,” the LTFRB said in a statement.

Department of Transportation (DOTr) Secretary Arthur Tugade said the granting of fare discounts in PUBs to uniformed personnel was in line with the directive of President Rodrigo Duterte to honor the men and women in uniform.

“In line with the President’s directive, this is our way of giving back to our soldiers, policemen and Coast Guard servicemen who secure our nation and protect the Filipino people. We owe the peace and order and national security of our country to their inspiring service,” Tugade said.

The special fare discount for all uniformed personnel shall continue and remain effective indefinitely, which will then be reviewed after one year.

Japan vows to assist PH in fight vs. terrorism

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 11, 2019): Japan vows to assist PH in fight vs. terrorism

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte discusses pertinent matters with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono who paid a courtesy call on the President at the Matina Enclaves in Davao City on February 9, 2019. (Toto Lozano/Presidential Photo)
The Japanese government has reiterated its commitment to assist the Philippines in fighting terrorism, MalacaƱang said on Monday.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said this was the assurance made by Japan Foreign Minister Taro Kono to President Rodrigo R. Duterte during a courtesy call in Davao City on February 9.

Kono met Duterte to personally relay Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s commitment to deepen cooperation between the two countries and concern over the twin explosions in Jolo, Sulu.

“FM Kono likewise conveyed PM Abe’s grave concern over the twin explosions in Jolo, Sulu and expressed Japan’s condemnation of the terrorism and violent extremism and their commitment to assist the Philippines in combatting the scourge of terrorism,” Panelo said in a statement.

Panelo, however, said the Japanese government has not yet particularized in detail how it would help the Philippines -- either by military exercises or acquisition of defense equipment.
He said that Kono also lauded the success of the holding of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) plebiscite, reiterating support for the Philippines' quest for lasting peace in Mindanao.

Kono also expressed Japan’s commitment to rehabilitate and reconstruct Marawi and develop the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), including funding of the Road Network Development Plan for ARMM, Panelo said.
Moreover, Kono recognized the Philippines' contribution to the socio-economic development of Japan and conveyed Japan’s plan to open up its labor market for qualified Filipinos.

For his part, Duterte described Japan as “a true friend and proven partner” for its involvement in the Philippines’ “Build, Build, Build” program, Panelo said.

Duterte highlighted the quality of the infrastructure projects and the transfer of technology and training embedded in the projects that would benefit Filipino practitioners and experts.

The President stressed the need to continue strengthening the strategic partnership, particularly in addressing transnational crimes and conventional and emerging regional threats.

Panelo said Duterte also expressed his desire to meet Abe again to discuss developments in bilateral ties and assess ways of moving forward together on shared concerns but has yet to confirm if he had plans to visit Japan.

The two leaders were last seen together during the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Singapore in November 2018.

Kono recently attended the inauguration of Japan’s Consulate General in Davao which he described as “significantly expanding Japan’s presence and ties in the southern Philippines”.

Unexploded bombs still litter Marawi

From the Manila Times (Feb 11, 2019): Unexploded bombs still litter Marawi
Almost two years after it was declared liberated from terrorists, Marawi City, capital of Lanao del Sur province in southern Mindanao, was still filled with unexploded ordnances, causing delay in its rehabilitation, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said on Sunday.

Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, military spokesman, said around 40 unexploded ordnances, mostly air bombs dropped by military aircraft during the Marawi siege in 2017, were yet to be retrieved.

This was based on the information from Col. Romeo Brawner Jr., commander of the Philippine Army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade, according to Arevalo.

“I asked him (Brawner) about that and he said there are around 40 more [unexploded] ordnances that we still need to recover,” he said in an interview over dzRH radio.

Recovering the unexploded bombs would be hard, Arevalo said, because some of the bombs came from an air assault and went directly to the ground.

“That is why there is a need for us to detect where these are and we need to be careful in retrieving these items,” he added.

Arevalo said authorities were able to “clear” 80 percent of the main battle area in Marawi City.

The fighting between government troops and the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group lasted five months, from May to October in 2017.

The government is having a hard time in completely rehabilitating Marawi City, which was still in ruins when Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr., the military chief, visited the former battle ground.

Arevalo clarified that the military’s role in Marawi was only to support Task Force Bangon Marawi, which was primarily in charge of rehabilitating the besieged city.

“We cannot do this alone, the Armed Forces is just part of it. What I have been explaining to the public is this is not just an ordinary digging like what we are doing in digging for yams,” he explained.

“This requires a lot of processes because even if we locate all of those [ordnances] that need to be located, we still have to observe certain procedures, even with those who have expertise in ordnances, but they are the ones who could help in unearthing these items,” Arevalo said.

Palace welcomes P300-M intel support from US

From the Manila Bulletin (Feb 11, 2019): Palace welcomes P300-M intel support from US

MalacaƱang welcomed the commitment of the United States government to provide the Philippines P300 million to improve the country’s intelligence gathering capabilities.

Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo

In a statement, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the commitment was proof of the good ties between the allied countries.

“We welcome the United States’ commitment in fighting terrorism. This shows that our military alliance with the United States remains strong,” he said.

In its latest quarterly report on the Philippines, the US Defense Department said it was helping the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) gather intelligence on terror groups in the country.

In his statement, Panelo said the government was accepting all the help and funding it could get to fight terrorists, saying terrorism knew no boundaries, politics, religion, and creed.

“It is the new evil in the world that strikes at every country and every continent. We need all the help as every member-country in the United Nations needs the assistance and cooperation of each other to combat and crush terrorism,” he said.

In Mindanao, Panelo said, terrorists have gained a foothold and have unleashed bombs that killed soldiers and civilians. However, he said the people will not allow terrorism to rule over them.

“While the terroristic acts have created fear and anxiety in the inhabitants of the region, they however refused to be intimidated and cowed as they exercised their right of suffrage in the just concluded plebiscite,” he said.

“Our armed forces are relentlessly pursuing the mass murderers even as some of them have been criminally charged and presently detained,” he added.

 He also assured the public that security in the country will be enhanced. He likewise asked the people to remain vigilant at all tims.

“We assure the nation that security for our people have been enhanced. We call our people to be vigilant and report to the authorities any suspicious act by any person or group of persons in their communities that may tend to endanger their lives, limbs and properties,” Panelo said.

AFP denies conspiring with MILF for BOL win

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 11, 2019: AFP denies conspiring with MILF for BOL win

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Monday denied reports claiming that government officials have conspired with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to ensure the win of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) in the recent plebiscites.

"This is an unfortunate occasion where the AFP, despite diligently performing its mandate 24/7, is being accused of a malpractice. This is grossly unfair to the men and women of the AFP who dutifully performed their election duties," AFP spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in a message to reporters Monday.

Arevalo was reacting to Cotabato City Mayor Frances Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi's claims that government, military, and Commission on Elections and the MILF conspired to ensure that Cotabato City would fall under the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

"We hope that the good Mayor of Cotabato City will bring her charges to the proper forum and substantiate her allegations than besmirch the good reputation of the AFP through media," Arevalo said.

He added that the AFP remains "professional, non-partisan, and true to its mandate of protecting the people in the exercise of their political rights and in electing their leaders who will manage the affairs of the state".

During the Jan. 21 plebiscite to ratify the BOL, the "Yes" vote won in Cotabato City.

Recent developments surrounding the South China Sea

From the Washington Poste (Feb 10, 2019): Recent developments surrounding the South China Sea

In this Feb. 3, 2019, photo released by U.S. Marine’s 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, an F-35B Lightning II with the F-35B detachment of Medium Marine Tiltrotor Squadron 262 (Reinforced) releases Guided Bomb Units on-target above the Pacific Ocean. The training mission demonstrated an “increase in lethality and integrated amphibious capability,” it quoted Col. Robert Brodie, commanding officer of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit as saying. (Maj. Jesse Peppers/U.S. Marine Corps via AP) (Associated Press)

A look at recent developments in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves:

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a weekly look at the latest developments in the South China Sea, the location of several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.


Ships from the Chinese navy and coast guard along with fishing boats from its maritime militia have been deployed to keep watch on Philippine development work on the island of Thitu.

The appearance of the ships followed the start of work by Manila to build a new beaching ramp on the island that Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana says will be completed early this year, according to a report from think tank CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative on Feb. 6.

The island that is home to about 100 civilians and a small military garrison is the largest of the nine occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly islands and serves as its administrative center in the area. Thitu and is also claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The ramp will facilitate the delivery of construction equipment and material for upgrading the island’s airstrip and other infrastructure, AMTI said. Bigger ships with deeper drafts would be able to offload supplies directly onto the island, rather than having to transfer them to smaller vessels as was the case before.

Additionally, satellite imagery shows excavators depositing sand over a larger area to the north about the size of three city blocks, AMTI said. Lorenzana had earlier said there were plans to expand facilities on the island, including building a “fish port, desalination plant, solar power array, improved housing, and marine research facilities,” AMTI said.

AMTI says satellite photos show the number of Chinese vessels fluctuating from as high as 95 in December to just 42 by late January. It gave no word on any attempt by them to intervene in the ongoing work.

“Manila appears intent on upgrading its facilities in the Spratlys despite any detente or objections from Beijing,” AMTI said in its report.

The Philippines’ land reclamation efforts are much more modest than those of its neighbors in the Spratlys. Once completed, it will have created 3.2 hectares (8 acres) of reclaimed land in the island group in recent years, compared to about 49 hectares (120 acres) by Vietnam and 1,295 hectares (3,200 acres) by China.


American F-35B Lightning II aircraft operating off the Navy’s amphibious assault ship USS Wasp conducted “milestone flight operations” with weapons fully loaded in the Philippine and East China Seas, Jan. 26 through Feb. 6, the Marine Corps said.

The training mission demonstrated an “increase in lethality and integrated amphibious capability,” it quoted Col. Robert Brodie, commanding officer of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit as saying.

The fifth-generation fighters carried CATM-9X air-to-air missiles and dropped 500-pound GBU-12 Paveway II and 1,000-pound GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs.

“We achieved mission success by using the full capabilities of the F-35B at sea,” Lt. Col. Michael Rountree, the F-35B detachment officer-in-charge was quoted as saying in a news release.

Rountree said the planes engaged role-playing enemy aircraft and hit simulated targets before landing vertically on the Wasp.

It was the first time such a level of training had been carried out by an operationally deployed F-35B detachment with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, Rountree said.

While the area of operations was east of the South China Sea, the exercise illustrates the continuing U.S. military presence in the area, to which China routinely objects.


A top Chinese general has emphasized the need for a “strong and modernized maritime law enforcement force” that has been a major participant in asserting Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.

Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Gen. Xu Qiliang “required the officers and soldiers to be well-prepared for different cases, encouraging them to staunchly safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests,” the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing remarks he delivered at a Lunar New Year reception earlier this month at coast guard headquarters.

Xu called for “solid practices to further develop the coast guard force, noting that it concerns the overall strategy of building China into a maritime power,” Xinhua said.

It said Xu’s remarks specifically concerned ongoing patrols on the East China and South China Seas.

China claims a group of tiny uninhabited islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan and routinely sails coast guard vessels into the surrounding waters. In the South China Sea, coast guard vessels are used in lieu of navy ships to avoid outright confrontations and emphasize China’s claim to virtually the entire waterway.

Xu “also stressed steadily enhancing the coast guard’s readiness to safeguard maritime rights and enforce the law on the sea and improving their capability to deal with related risks and challenges,” Xinhua said.

This story has been corrected to show that it was the Marine Corps that was the source of information about the jet training.

US destroyers sail near disputed Spratly Islands in South China Sea amid trade tensions

From Channel News Asia (Feb 11): US destroyers sail near disputed Spratly Islands in South China Sea amid trade tensions

Satellite photo shows Mischief Reef

A satellite photo dated Mar 13, 2018 shows Mischief Reef. (Photo: Planet Labs/Handout via Reuters)
Two US warships sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea on Monday (Feb 11), a US official told Reuters, in a move that earned a rebuke from Beijing at a time of tense relations between the world's two biggest economies.

Beijing and Washington are locked in a trade war and the two sides are trying to hammer out a deal ahead of a Mar 1 deadline when US tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports are scheduled to increase to 25 per cent from 10 per cent.

Escalating tensions between the United States and China have cost both countries billions of dollars and roiled global financial markets.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the two guided-missile destroyers travelled within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.

China accused the United States of trying to "stir up trouble".

The US is "determined to stir up trouble in the South China Sea, create tension and undermine peace", Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily press briefing.

She urged the US to cease the "provocative actions".

The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing's efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, where Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies operate.

China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea and frequently lambastes the US and its allies over naval operations near Chinese-occupied islands.

The countries have repeatedly traded barbs in the past over what Washington says is Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.

China defends its construction as necessary for self-defence and says it is the US that is responsible for ratcheting up tensions in the region by sending warships and military planes close to islands Beijing claims.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan have competing claims in the region.

Fears have grown in recent months that the US-China trade dispute is just one element in a bilateral relationship that is fast cooling across the board, with top US administration officials criticising Beijing for everything from human rights abuses to cyber espionage in the US.

The two countries are also at odds over regional security, including Washington’s overtures to the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own.