US Defence Secretary Mark Esper yesterday vowed more support for the Philippines in efforts to modernise the country’s military and improve maritime security as tensions build over the disputed South China Sea.
Esper, who was in Manila for a one-day visit, said he and Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana discussed various ways to strengthen co-operation and further boost the two countries’ decades-old alliance.
“The United States will continue to support and to help modernise the Philippines armed forces and to improve maritime security and domain awareness,” he told a press conference after their meeting.
“We look forward to train in future joint air and maritime patrols to improve our interoperability and to demonstrate our commitment to upholding the long-standing international rules and norms,” he added.
Esper said the United States would continue to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, despite warnings by China against such activities, stressing that such acts send a clear message that all countries should abide by international laws.
“I think it is incumbent upon all of us to take a very public posture and to assert our sovereign rights and to emphasise the importance of law,” he said.
Noting that the US has conducted more freedom-of-navigation operations in the past year than in the previous 20 years, Esper said: “The clear signal that we’re trying to send is not that we oppose China per se, but that we all stand for international rules and international laws and that we think China should abide by them as well.”
“Acting collectively is the best way to send that message and to get China on the right path,” he added.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its territory and has built artificial islands with military-capable facilities over reefs and outcrops in the area, which are also claimed in part by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that Beijing had no legal or historical basis for its “Nine-Dash Line,” which demarcates its claims to the South China Sea, a key shipping lane believed to be rich in marine and mineral resources.
China has rejected the arbitration ruling, which was the result of a case filed by the Philippines.
Esper and Lorenzana also discussed counter-terrorism co-operation as a key pillar of the two countries’ defence alliance.
“We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the armed forces of the Philippines in fighting terrorism,” Esper said. “The United States remains committed in supporting the Philippines’ continued efforts to deny terrorist groups a safe haven in the region.”
According to the Philippine defence department, troops are monitoring suspected Islamic State-allied operatives who are believed to be hiding in the southern region of Mindanao and working with local terrorist groups.