MANHATTAN — The U.S. armed forces recruiting station in Times Square provided the backdrop for a demonstration against the start of joint American-Filipino military exercises in the South China Sea.

More than 50 activists, representing Filipino advocacy and anti-war groups based in the U.S. and the Philippines, gathered around a banner that read “U.S. Troops Out of the Philippines!” 

Smaller signs—including ones reading “Fund Social Services—Not War,” and “End Climate Imperialism”—also denounced the U.S. military presence.

“We are here…to condemn the expansionist endeavors of the United States military,” said Kaloy Ceballos of Anakbayan Manhattan, local chapter of the pro-democracy Filipino youth movement.

This year, the Philippines granted the U.S. additional access to four military bases under a 2014 agreement that allows Washington to send American troops for extended periods. The U.S. already had access to five military bases.

This month’s war games—dubbed “Balikatan,” Tagalog for “shoulder-to-shoulder”—are the largest military exercises to be held between the two countries. The live-fire drills, running through April 28, include 12,000 American and 5,000 Filipino personnel.

The U.S. and the Philippines say the moves are a response to years of increased Chinese military activity in the South China Sea. China has built artificial islands and bases in the South China Sea, claiming territorial waters that are disputed by other southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines.

“There is no doubt that this is America’s buildup to war in the Asia Pacific,” said Nina Macapinlac of Bayan USA, a Filipino activist group.

American and Philippines officials say the drills are designed to build up defense capabilities, not signal aggression. 

Activists at the Times Square rally say that isn’t true.

“There is no doubt that this is America’s buildup to war in the Asia Pacific,” said Nina Macapinlac, secretary general of Bayan USA, the American chapter of the Filipino organization that advocates for democracy free from foreign influence.“There is no doubt that this is meant to provoke China and to stoke the flames of a world war.” 

The Philippines should strengthen its national sovereignty, rather than align with either Beijing or Washington, demonstrators said.

“We the Filipino people must choose ourselves and our nation,” Macapinlac said. “We know that we must build the national economy in order to build [the Philippines’] capacity to defend its territories.”

Mitzi Johelle Tan, a climate activist from the Philippines, said the environmental ramifications of the U.S. military presence are often overlooked.

Brown University’s Costs of War Project found that from 2001 to 2017, the American military emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gasses. The U.S. Department of Defense is the “largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world,” the report said. 

“The US is historically the greatest polluter and the biggest reason behind the climate crisis,” Tan said. “And something that people aren’t talking about—and the climate negotiations aren’t talking about—are the military emissions of the U.S.”