WASHINGTON – The United States said on Thursday it would provide the Philippines with military assets it needs to defend itself.“We are determined and committed to supporting the defense of the Philippines, and that means trying to find ways of providing affordable material and equipment that will assist the Philippine military to take the steps necessary to defend itself,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said here.It was the clearest statement of support by a high-ranking official for a longstanding ally involved in a war of words with China over ownership of disputed territories in the South China Sea.
Clinton made the statement in the presence of Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario in reply to a question posed by The STAR on whether she supported a request by the Armed Forces of the Philippines for modern but affordable US military hardware so it could have a credible response to external threats at home and in the South China Sea.
“Yes, we do support that, and we are starting a process with the foreign secretary and government of the Philippines to review their existing programs and to determine what are the additional assets that the Philippines needs and how we can best provide those,” she said.
Clinton invited Del Rosario to Washington to discuss a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues including recent events in the South China Sea.
Alleged Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea particularly in the disputed Spratly Islands has sparked incidents with Vietnam and the Philippines and increased tensions in the region.
“These reported incidents clearly present significant maritime security issues, including the freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and the lawful, unimpeded economic development and commerce that all nations are entitled to pursue,” Clinton said.
She sidestepped a question from ABS-CBN on what the US would do if China attacked Filipino forces in the Spratly Islands.
“I’m not going to discuss hypothetical events, but I want to underscore our commitment to the defense of the Philippines,” she said.
“We are in discussions with the government of the Philippines about what their needs are because it is up to them to decide how to deploy forces and what their highest priorities are. But we certainly wish to do what we can to support them in their desires for external support for maritime defense,” she said.
She described her talks with Del Rosario at the State Department as “very productive.“
They were originally scheduled to meet for 30 minutes but this was extended to 45 minutes.
In remarks to the press after their meeting Clinton expressed concern over recent incidents in the South China Sea, which she said could undermine peace and stability in the region.
“We urge all sides to exercise self-restraint, and we will continue to consult closely with all countries involved, including our treaty ally, the Philippines,” she said.
She emphasized the US has a national interest in freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded, lawful commerce in the South China Sea.
“The United States does not take sides on territorial disputes over land features in the South China Sea, but we oppose the use of force or the threat of force to advance the claims of any party,” she added.
On his part Del Rosario said he told Clinton “that while we are a small country, we are prepared to do what is necessary to stand up to any aggressive action in our backyard.”
He repeated the Philippine position on the issue: to maintain peace while allowing for economic development in the South China Sea.
After both officials made their statements the press were allowed two questions from the American side and two questions from the Philippine side.
Request for hardware
From the State Department Del Rosario visited the Pentagon for talks with defense officials, including Secretary Robert Gates, to flesh out the request for affordable military hardware.
He said he wants to pursue the possibility of an operational lease of assets which could be newer but less expensive and could be obtained faster.
The Philippines has previously relied on excess defense articles for its needs paid for under US foreign military financing. But the equipment cost a lot to refurbish and take from 9 to 12 months to be delivered.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines has drawn a list of its needs and officials from both countries will be reviewing this in the coming weeks.
Before his meeting with Clinton, Del Rosario spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and said the physical presence of military bases was no longer the foundation of a robust Phl-US security arrangement.
“We do not expect the US to fight our battles for us, but we count on the strong and unwavering assistance of the US in building the strength and resources of the Philippine military to meet new challenges,” he said.
Tensions in the strategic and resource-rich South China Sea – part of which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea – have escalated in recent weeks, with the Philippines and Vietnam alarmed at what they say are increasingly aggressive actions by Beijing in the disputed waters.
The Philippines has announced the deployment in disputed waters of its navy flagship, the BRP Rajah Humabon. One of the world’s oldest warships, the Rajah Humabon was a former US Navy frigate that served during World War II.
The Philippines has historically bought second-hand hardware, but Del Rosario said that President Aquino has allocated 11 billion pesos ($252 million) to upgrade the Navy.
The United States signed a defense treaty with the Philippines in 1951, five years after the archipelago’s independence from US colonial rule. Del Rosario said he believed the treaty — which calls for mutual defense in the event of an attack in “the Pacific area” — covers the South China Sea.
The United States has been providing military aid to the Philippines primarily to fight Islamic militants in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The United States gave the Philippines $15 million in military assistance in the 2011 fiscal year, with much larger sums devoted to development, according to official US data.
China has said that it will not resort to the use of force in the South China Sea but has also warned the United States to stay out of territorial spats.
“I believe some countries now are playing with fire. And I hope the US won’t be burned by this fire,” China’s vice foreign minister Cui Tiankai said.
Cui will meet Saturday in Hawaii with Kurt Campbell, a US assistant secretary of state, for a first dialogue between the two nations to focus specifically on Asia-Pacific affairs.
The United States plans to hold joint exercises with the Philippines next week and the US Navy will visit Vietnam next month, although US officials have described the events as routine.