US, PH prioritize 'high value' joint exercises amid China row
MANILA, Philippines – The South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) took center stage at the 5th annual Bilateral Strategic Dialogue between the United States and the Philippines held in Manila, as China continues to engage in "massive" construction activities in the disputed area.
During the dialogue, Philippine and US officials agreed to step up joint military exercises focused on maritime security and maritime domain awareness, even as a US official called for “maximum restraint” in the South China Sea.
"We examined regional and international issues such as the South China Sea in which we reaffirm our continuing concern over destabilizing activities that are contrary to the Declaration of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as well as international law," said David Shear, US Department of Defense Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Security Policy.
Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino said this means prioritizing joint military exercises on maritime security and maritime domain awareness.
“We have developed a clearer direction for the Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board to prioritize high value exercises that would focus on maritime security, maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief," Batino said in a news briefing after the dialogue.
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Daniel Russel also noted how the US is modernizing its alliances, as US President Barack Obama explained in his State of the Union Address (SOTU) that coincided with the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue.
"The President emphasized a smarter kind of leadership that combines military power with strong diplomacy, leveraging that power with partners. He said that we are upholding the principle that bigger nations cannot bully the small," Russel added.
Russel said the South China Sea dispute is an "ongoing concern" of the US but the two countries should exercise "maximum restraint" in favor of diplomacy.
“We look forward to the day when China and its neighbors would have a binding Code of Conduct but in the meantime, we think there is a powerful case to be made for the maximum exercise of restraint,” he said.
Russel made the call even as he noted that China has “a number of projects underway in the South China Sea reclaiming land in shoals and rocks in sensitive areas whose sovereignty are contested.
"This is a topic of discussion, naturally, between the US and the Philippines. It’s a topic of conversation between the US and China as well," he added.
The Philippines is protesting the reclamation projects but China remains undeterred by such complaints.
"The Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea continue to be of serious concern for the Philippine defense and military establishment especially arising from the recent reports of greater development of its reclamation projects," said Batino.
Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr earlier said the reclamation at the Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef is about 50% complete.
China has several reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea but only Kagitingan, so far, can accommodate a runway. If built, it will greatly change the security situation in the region. – Rappler.com