PH, US agree to build maritime defense
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the US does not take sides in sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea

TERRIBLY PAINFUL. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario candidly tells US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that the Philippines needs help in improving its "poor state of Philippines armed forces." Screen grab from State Department video

WASHINGTON, United States of America – The Philippines and the US have agreed to strengthen maritime presence in Philippine waters in talks that were held amid a standoff between Beijing and Manila in the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

In a joint statement of the United States-Philippines Ministerial Dialogue dated April 30, both countries agreed to, among others, “cooperate on building the Philippines’ maritime security presence and capabilities and strengthening its maritime domain awareness in order to contribute to national defense and enhanced regional security related to issues such as illegal fishing, transnational crime, and natural disasters.”

In relation to this, the statement added, “the United States intends to transfer a second High Endurance cutter to the Philippines this year.”

Philippines Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin met in Washington with US counterparts Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta.U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday afternoon (Tuesday morning in Manila) said the US government opposes the threat or use of force by any party in settling territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

But Clinton said that the US government does not take sides in sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, as a Pacific power. She stressed however that the US has an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the sea lanes in the region.

During the talks, the Philippines, lamenting the poor state of its armed forces, appealed for US and international help in building a “minimum credible defense” amid an escalating territorial dispute with China.

Del Rosario lamented how the international news media has described the poor state of Philippinesarmed forces.

“It sounds terribly painful for the Philippines but more painful is the fact that this is true, and we only have ourselves to blame for it,” del Rosario said in a candid assessment as Clinton and Panetta listened across a table.

“For the Philippines to be minimally relied upon as a US regional partner… it therefore behooves us to resort to all possible means to build at the very least a most minimal credible defense posture,” del Rosario said.

“On our own, we will do the best we can,” the Philippines top diplomat said.

“Developing a minimum credible defense posture may however be hastened mainly through an enhancement of the activities we do together with our singular treaty (with Washington) and through a positive consideration of increased assistance that we seek at this time as well,” he said.

“We are concurrently seeking a higher level of assistance from other international partners,” he said.

Gazmin alluded to tension with China over islands in the South China Sea as he called for the need to “intensify our mutual trust to uphold maritime security and the freedom of navigation.”

“We should be able to work together to build the Philippines minimum credible defense posture, especially in upholding maritime security,” Gazmin said.

He also talked of the need to “institutionalize efficient humanitarian assistance and disaster response” as the Philippines armed forces needed to be better prepared to tackle natural disasters.

New chapter

Clinton, the US secretary of state, said the meetings of 4 key national security officials of both countries, “allows us to write a new chapter together in our alliance.”

The Philippines and China have been embroiled in a dispute over a shoal in the South China Sea, with both nations stationing vessels there for nearly three weeks to assert their sovereignty.

The Philippines says Scarborough Shoal is its territory because it falls well within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, as recognized by international law.

The Philippines has called for arbitration through the United Nations to end the dispute, but China has refused.

Taiwanese visit

Meanwhile, 3 Taiwanese legislators and several top military officers flew to the disputed Spratly islands Monday to renew their territorial claim amid mounting tensions in the South China Sea.

The 3 legislators — all sitting on the parliament’s defense committee — landed on Taiping Island, the biggest in the contested waters, on an air force C-130 transport plane.

Taiwan built a 1,150-meter (3,795-foot) runway on the fortified island in mid-2006, despite protests from the other countries with claims on the disputed island group.

The parliamentarians were briefed by officers on defence measures for repelling intruders.

“The visit was aimed at reiterating Taiwan’s territorial claim over the Spratlys,” legislator Lin Yu-fang told reporters after the trip.

All claimants except Brunei have troops based on the archipelago of more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls, which have a total land mass of less than five square kilometres (two square miles).

One-third of global seaborne trade passes through the South China Sea, which is also believed to encompass huge oil and gas reserves. – with reports from Agence France-Presse


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