US, Philippines boost alliance amid row with China
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The United States is helping the Philippines reinforce its weak navy as its longtime Asian ally wrangles with China in increasingly tense territorial disputes, officials said.
The long-simmering disputes over the potentially oil-rich South China Sea islands are expected to top U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's agenda in meetings Wednesday with President Benigno Aquino III and other top officials in Manila.
Clinton's two-day visit, which began Tuesday, will be capped by a highly symbolic ceremony aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald in Manila Bay to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the allies' Mutual Defense Treaty.
Clinton and Aquino will reaffirm the countries' defense alliance and discuss details of intensified U.S. military assistance. The U.S. is bolstering the underfunded Philippine military's capability to guard territorial waters and Manila-claimed areas in the disputed Spratlys — a chain of up to 190 islands, reefs and banks in the South China Sea, according to U.S. and Filipino officials.
The Spratlys, which straddle one of the world's most vital sea lanes, are being disputed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. The territorial row has been feared as Asia's next flashpoint for conflict.
The Phillippines wants talks involving all six nations, while China wants individual negotiations to settle the disputes.
Washington has maintained a policy of not siding with any Asian claimant locked in the disputes while maintaining robust economic ties with Beijing. But U.S. has said it has a stake in security and unhampered international commerce in the South China Sea, angering China, which 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.
For nearly a decade, the U.S. 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.
A senior U.S. State Department official traveling with Clinton told reporters that America's assistance would now increasingly turn to bolstering the Philippines' naval power.
"We are now in the process ... of diversifying and changing the nature of our engagement," the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty calls on each country to help defend the other against an external attack by an aggressor in their territories or in the Pacific region.
Questions have emerged whether the treaty would apply if Philippine forces come under attack in the disputed waters, all of which are claimed by China.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs says in a policy paper that the treaty requires Washington to help defend Filipino forces, citing U.S. diplomatic dispatches that defined the Pacific region as including the South China Sea.
Clinton said in June that the U.S. would honor its commitment under the treaty but refused to comment specifically if that includes the Spratlys.
While it backs the Philippines, the State Department official suggested such help has its limits. "We're very sensitive to making sure that this does not in any way alarm or provoke anybody else," he said.
Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.