MANILA, Philippines—In a highly symbolic ceremony aboard a guided-missile destroyer Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton underlined America’s military and diplomatic support for the Philippines as the island nation engages in an increasingly tense dispute with China over claims in the resource-rich West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
On the USS Fitzgerald in Manila Bay, Clinton and her Philippine counterpart, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, signed a declaration calling for multilateral talks to resolve maritime disputes such as those over the West Philippine Sea. Six countries in the region have competing claims, but China wants them to negotiate one-to-one — and chafes at any US involvement.
“The United States does not take any position on any territorial claim because any nation … has a right to assert it. But they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion,” Clinton said after meeting President Benigno Aquino III.
Clinton said that at this week’s East Asian Summit in Bali, Indonesia, the US certainly expect and participate in very open and frank discussions,” including on the maritime challenges in the region. Beijing said Tuesday it opposes bringing up the issue at the summit.
The US said it is helping its longtime Asian ally reinforce its weak navy as it wrangles with China over the sea’s potentially oil-rich Spratly islands, which straddle one of the world’s most vital sea lanes.
“We are making sure that our collective defense capabilities and communications infrastructure are operationally and materially capable of deterring provocations from the full spectrum of state and non-state actors,” Clinton said earlier aboard the Fitzgerald, a US Navy vessel that has operated in the West Philippine Sea.
The Manila Declaration signed by Clinton and del Rosario commemorated the 60th anniversary of the allies’ Mutual Defense Treaty. It also calls for “maintaining freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, and transit of people across the seas.”
Del Rosario said that Washington’s support for “a stronger, reliable Philippine defense” was crucial for stability and the two allies’ common goals in the West Philippine Sea. He reiterated that the Philippines planned to seek UN arbitration in the territorial dispute.
The Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea are being disputed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. The disputes have been feared as Asia’s next flashpoint for conflict.
Although not siding with any Asian claimant as it maintains robust economic ties with Beijing, the US angered China when it stated it has a stake in security and unhampered international commerce in the West Philippine Sea. China says American involvement will only complicate the issue.
The Philippines, whose poorly equipped forces are no match for China’s powerful military, has resorted to diplomatic protests and increasingly turned to Washington to reinforce its anemic navy and air forces. Aquino has insisted his country won’t be bullied by China.
A senior US State Department official traveling with Clinton told reporters that America’s military assistance to the Philippines will increasingly turn to bolstering its naval power.
For nearly a decade, the US military has been providing counterterrorism training, weapons and intelligence to help Filipino troops battle al-Qaida-linked groups in the nation’s south. Those include the Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent group blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization, and its allied militants from the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah group.
“We are now in the process … of diversifying and changing the nature of our engagement,” the US official said Tuesday on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity of the information. “We will continue those efforts in the south, but we are focusing more on maritime capabilities and other aspects of expeditionary military power.”
The US recently provided the Philippines with a destroyer, and the official said a second one will be delivered soon. “We are working on a whole host of things that improve their own indigenous capabilities to be able to deal with maritime challenges,” the official said.