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US lawmakers back stronger ties with Philippines


08:44 AM February 8th, 2012

February 8th, 2012 08:44 AM

WASHINGTON — US lawmakers backed Obama administration efforts Tuesday to forge a stronger relationship with the Philippines and said Congress soon would approve the transfer of a second ship to help the ally’s navy defend its waters.

Republican Representative Ed Royce told a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs hearing on US-Philippine relations that the congressional review process for transferring the Coast Guard Cutter Dallas will be finished this week, and the ship should soon be on its way to Manila. Another aging US cutter, the Hamilton, was transferred to the Philippines last May.

The US has sought to boost the Philippines’ ability to maintain its maritime security because of its ally’s concern over assertive Chinese behavior in disputed waters of the South China Sea.

While the United States has no territorial claims in the region, the top US diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, reiterated that the US has a national interest in such claims’ peaceful resolution and the freedom of navigation in seas that carry about a half the total tonnage of world trade.

Campbell said the US was considering a “reasonable” Philippine request also to transfer gear stripped from the Hamilton before it was handed over.

The US took the sensors from the ship before it was decommissioned, as well as its communications and electronics equipment, and close-in weapons system, which is used to detect and destroy at short range incoming anti-ship missiles and enemy aircraft.

The ship, commissioned in 1967, was transferred under a program that offers “excess defense articles” to foreign partners in support of US national security and foreign policy objectives.

Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Lavoy said the Hamilton had completed on Monday its first patrol in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands.

Asked about possible Philippine acquisition of F-16 fighter jets, Lavoy was noncommital. He said the US was considering a range of military capabilities requested by Manila, and “affordability and sustainability” would be critical in evaluating them.

Campbell, who stressed the importance of stronger economic ties, spoke in gushing terms about the bilateral relationship with the Philippines, one of five US treaty allies in Asia.

“There’s no country in Asia that’s more welcoming to the United States, more supportive of a stronger relationship and more on our side, rooting for us every step of the way,” he said.

He described the Philippines’ president, Benigno Aquino III, as a person of “rare integrity” and lauded his efforts to fight corruption.

The two Republican lawmakers who spoke at the hearing supported administration efforts to strengthen ties. Royce said the Philippines had been largely ignored in US foreign policy in recent years, but that was starting to change.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, an arch critic of China, praised the joint US-Philippine efforts to fight Islamic militants in the southern Philippines. For the past decade, hundreds of US forces have helped equip and train Filipino forces there.

Rohrabacher described an air strike last week that killed a leader of the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group, for which the US shared intelligence, as a victory against radical Islam.

“We need to stand as aggressively and as solidly with the Philippine government in confronting an aggressive, arrogant, expansionist China as we have in standing against radical Islam,” he said.

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