U.S. seeks to continue 'working closely' with Philippine military
MANILA, Philippines – A spokesman of the Carl Vinson Strike Group of the United States Navy stressed the importance of the superpower's military ties with the Philippines as it commits to defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
The massive USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier that hosts 72 aircraft and over 5,000 American sailors arrived in Manila this week, along with guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy for a routine port call after sailing in the disputed seas. (READ: U.S. flexes muscle in the Philippines amid concerns vs China)
"We appreciate the people of the Philippines and the government of the Philippines for hosting us. We're very excited to be here and we wish to continue working closely with your military," Lieutenant Commander Tim Hawkins told Rappler on Saturday, February 17.
"The Philippines is one of our 5 allies in the region. We've had a close relationship for a very long time and we want to continue that relationship," he added.
Hawkins pointed out the need for the US to collaborate with its allies when it is operating in the region.
"When we operate in the western Pacific or in the South China Sea or whatever body of water we are operating throughout the Indo-Pacific, we feel it is very important to do it collaboratively. [We want] to do it with our partners and with our allies because ensuring that [the region is] stable and the sea lanes are open helps out everyone," he said.
The Philippines is the US' longest treaty ally in Asia but their ties were threatened by President Rodrigo Duterte's pivot to China.
Duterte sought to scrap treaties with the US after the previous Obama administration criticized his anti-drug campaign. He was kinder to new US President Donald Trump, who supposedly praised his centerpiece campaign.
Duterte was also later forced to acknowledge the strong ties between the Philippine and US militaries. (READ: Duterte's pivot to China won't be easy for Americanized Philippine military)
The Carl Vinson Strike Group arrived in the region amid growing concerns over China's activities in Philippine waters – on Mischief Reef in the West Philippine Sea and in Benham Rise in the Pacific Ocean.
Back in January, China also deployed a warship to shoo away US destroyer USS Hopper when it supposedly sailed near Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a rocky sandbar off the coast of Zambales province in the Philippines.
Hawkins said the Carl Vinson Strike Group has not conducted freedom of navigation operations in the region, stressing that it is a specific deployment different from routine operations. He refused to divulge its next operations in the region after the port call in Manila.
"The most exciting thing that we've had this deployment is the fact that we've had an opportunity to stop in Manila. We also had an opportunity to host some dignitaries, many from the government of the Philippines, and that was super exciting. I would say that's been the most exciting news we've had. Otherwise it's been pretty routine," he said. – Rappler.com