The United States has kicked off the world’s largest maritime exercise in the Middle East, with more than 30 countries participating in the event. The International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX), which is organized by US Naval Forces Central Command, began Monday in Bahrain, home to the US 5th Fleet. "These participating nations are united by a common thread – the need to protect the free flow of commerce from a range of maritime threats including piracy, terrorism and mines," said Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, the commander of US Naval Forces Central Command in a statement. "This region provides a strong training opportunity for nations worldwide as three of the six major maritime choke points in the world are here: the Suez Canal, the Strait of Bab Al Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz," Donegan said. The IMCMEX, which ends on April 26, focuses on operations such as mine countermeasures, infrastructure protection, and maritime security operations to protect civilian shipping. In addition, new technologies such as unmanned underwater vehicles and the expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Choctaw County will be demonstrated. At the same time, the United States launched another drill Monday in waters near the South China Sea, areas of which are the subject of a territorial dispute among regional states including China. The 12-day annual drills, dubbed Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder), began on Monday with the participation of some 5,000 US troops, 4,000 Filipino soldiers, and 80 Australian forces. The US has recently increased its presence in the Middle East as well as in the Asia-Pacific region.