Expect stronger US message vs China aggression

Carmela Fonbuena

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Will PH-US negotiations involving access by American troops to military bases here be completed in time for Obama's April visit?

ARRIVAL HONORS. US navy chief of naval operations Admiral Admiral Jonathan Greenert. Photo by Carmela Fonbuena

MANILA, Philippines – Don’t be surprised if you continue to hear US officials sending China a stronger message. You’ll see more of that, said US chief of naval operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert.

“The preponderance and collection of activity by China has caused us to be more clear on where we stand on this – the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), the unilateral declaration of extended fishing gournds…. It is confusing. Worse, it is conflicting with internal norms,” Greenert explained when asked about the heightened US rhetoric in following international laws in the South China Sea. (READ: Beijing slams ‘irresponsible’ US warning on South China Sea and US lawmakers support PH legal track on China)

Greenert is in the Philippines to sit down with his counterparts to discuss military cooperation in the region. He is the latest in a growing list of US defense and military officials to visit the countrty.

He was at Camp Aguinaldo on Thursday, February 13, to pay a courtesy call on Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and to speak before students of the National Defense College of the Philippines. 

More US assets in the region

The Philippines has one of the weakest militaries in Asia but it is one of the most vocal in challenging China’s aggression, especially inside the country’s exclusive economic zone. The Philippines is now asking for an increased presence of US troops here, a request that coincides with the strategy to rebalance in the Asia Pacific region.

President Benigno Aquino III was quoted saying the Philippine and the US are close to finalizing a military-to-military agreement allowing increased rotational presence of troops in the Philippines and giving them more access to Philippine military bases. The next round of negotiations will happen in March and all eyes are on the panel – if they will finish the deal in time for the April visit of US President Barack Obama. (READ: PH, US ‘close’ to signing military deal and Problems in the US-PH bases access deal?)

In the past two decades, Greenert said the US has had at least 50 ships in the Western Pacific. As part of the rebalancing, Greenert said these will increase to 60 ships, including the newest platforms of the US navy. 

“What does it mean to the Philippines? We will be availabe to operate, to work together to be able to be comfortable with our partnership and we will go to the direction that we want to,” Greenert said. 

Super Typhoon Yolanda showed last year the advantages of the presence of US troops and assets in the Philippines. But allowing the US to construct facilities here is raising concerns. (READ: Soldiers of the world deployed for Haiyan victims)

China invasion? US will help PH

If push comes to shove, Greenert vows the US will be around to help the Philippines. An NDCP student asked Greenert what the US would do if China forcibly tries to occupy, say, Pag-asa, the second largest island in the Spratlys.

Greenert replied: “Of course, we will help you…. We have an obligation because of the treaty.” 

But Greenert said dialogue is the best way to resolve the tension. “Move the dialogue less in the direction where we are going to end in confrontation and combat. It doesn’t have to be that way if we use the process that we put in place. We should exhaust that,” he said. 

In April, countries involved in maritime disputes will try to do just that. The different navies will gather in China for the Western Pacific Naval Symposium. The meeting will seek to draw up common protocols that will guide countries in encounters at sea. The US is invited and the Philippines will also attend.

“I don’t know if I’m optimistic as much as I’m saying we’re going to be deliberate. What the heck is this? We need to close this up. All nations seem to disagree except for one,” he said. – Rappler.com

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