MANILA, Philippines—A high-level United States defense and military delegation assured the Philippines of increased joint military exercises on Tuesday as China announced its own naval war drills in the South China Sea.
Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario, who had met with visiting US deputy secretary of defense Ashton Carter, withheld comment on the ongoing Chinese war drills, saying he had yet to verify the location of the training exercises and whether or not it infringed on the country’s territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency had said in a report that a fleet of four Chinese navy ships sailed off Hainan province in southern China for what it described as “a regular arrangement” in its yearly training programs.
Different parts of the waters around the Spratly Islands off southern China are being contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
Xinhua said China’s four warships would undertake training exercises that included “command post establishment, operational maneuvering from the sea and high-sea convoy missions.”
Quoting Jiang Weilie, commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s South China Sea fleet, Xinhua said warships Jinggangshan, Lanzhou, Yulin and Hengshui were deployed for the war drills on March 19.
“The training exercises will be conducted according to requirements of actual combat, with the aim of improving the navy’s defense capabilities based on the information system and enhancing its ability to safeguard maritime sovereignty,” Xinhua quoted Jiang in its report.
Xinhua described the Jinggangshan as “China’s most advanced amphibious transport dock” with the heaviest haul capability. The Lanzhou and Hengshui are expected to proceed to the Gulf of Aden, the pirate-infested waters off Somalia.
Amid tensions over rival maritime claims in the region, the presence of US military forces in the Philippines is expected to increase.
Del Rosario said Carter, accompanied by several other defense and military officials, assured him of America’s support for the country’s efforts to strengthen our military and its ability to defend our country.
Del Rosario said Carter had said “the US stands solidly behind the efforts of the Philippines to resolve the maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea in a peaceful manner and consistent with the rule of law.”
“I welcomed Dr. Carter’s strong support for our efforts at peacefully settling the maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea. We are committed to seeing this through,” said Del Rosario.
He was referring to the Philippines’ arbitration case against China to stop the latter’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea and to invalidate the Chinese nine-dash line claiming almost all the islands in the contested waters, including those within Philippine maritime
During the meeting, the DFA said the officials agreed to step up capacity building efforts for the Philippine military, saying “it is important that there be an increase in the number of exercises and other approved activities between the military and defense establishments of the two countries.”
“The increased rotational presence [of US forces] will be crucial in allowing us to maximize our own investment in our defense,” said Del Rosario.
“We will be able to increase and maximize the value and returns of the P75 billion the President (Benigno Aquino III) has allocated for our defense for the next five years,” he said.
The US is the country’s closest defense partner, continuing cooperation under the Mutual Defense Treaty for more than 60 years now. Last year, the US State Department guaranteed to double its foreign military allocation for the Philippines from $15 million to $30 million.