USA Reaffirms Military Ties with the Philippines – Boost bases in Australia

MANILA — during a high-profile visit to the Philippines on Wednesday (November 16, 2011), Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stood on the deck of a American warship in Manila Bay and reaffirmed the strong military relationship between the United States and the Philippines.

Steaming hot day in Manila, Clinton signed a declaration marking sixty years since the US signed a security treaty with the Philippines in a highly symbolic ceremony aboard the Fitzgerald, a US Navy vessel that has operated in the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea).

"We must ensure that this alliance remains strong, capable of delivering results for the people of the Philippines and the United States and our neighbors throughout the Pacific," Clinton said.

Clinton underlined the US military and diplomatic support for the Philippines amid rising tensions between the Philippines and China over resource-rich South China Sea.

The statement called for a "rules-based approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas".

"The United States does not take any position on any territorial claim because any nation ... has a right to assert it. But they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion," Clinton said, not directly mentioning China.

The visit comes at a time of heightening tensions in the South China Sea related to the oil-rich Spratly Islands, which are the subject of disputed claims by China, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations. By some estimates, the energy reserves in the areas being disputed by the various countries could rival those of Kuwait.

"We are making sure that our collective defense capabilities and communications infrastructure are operationally and materially capable of deterring provocations from the full spectrum of state and nonstate actors," Mrs. Clinton said aboard the guided missile cruiser U.S.S. Fitzgerald.

Mrs. Clinton's visit also coincides with a trip to the region by President Obama. On Wednesday, Mr. Obama arrived in the Australian capital of Canberra and announced with Prime Minister Julia Gillard an agreement that allows for an increased military presence in that country. Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton will then attend the East Asian Summit in Indonesia.

In Australia, US President Barack Obama announced an agreement Wednesday to expand the US military presence in Australia; meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed military support for the Philippines, indicating US concerns over an increasingly aggressive China.

The US-Australia agreement, announced during a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, will position more US equipment and increase military personnel in Australia.

"With my visit to the region I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region," Obama said.

Deployment of an initial company of 200-250 Marines would begin next year and expand to up to 2,500 eventually, Gillard said.

The move may be seen by Beijing as further evidence of Washington's attempt to encircle China, with US bases in Japan and Korea and now in Australia.

Obama also plans to raise maritime security in the South China Sea at the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Bali this week, defying China's desire to keep this sensitive topic off the agenda.

While in the Philippines, Mrs. Clinton also signed a pact promoting economic growth and attended a lively public forum in which she took questions from the public. But her appearance on the deck of the warship — a highly symbolic event — had greater impact for the militarily weak Philippines as it tangles with a huge neighbor to the north over the Spratly Islands.

"Filipinos appreciate symbolism," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Economic Reform. "She did not say anything unusual, but they saw her on a warship in Manila Bay. They received the message."

Mrs. Clinton, whose visit was marked by relatively modest anti-American protests at the American Embassy in Manila, reiterated Washington's position that territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be settled peacefully. In another gesture not lost on her local audience, she referred to the disputed area by its locally coined name: the West Philippine Sea.

"We are strongly of the opinion that disputes that exist primarily in the West Philippine Sea between the Philippines and China should be resolved peacefully," she said during a televised news conference with Philippine secretary for foreign affairs, Albert del Rosario. "Any nation with a claim has a right to exert it, but they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion."

Following its independence in 1946, the Philippines signed agreements that allowed American military bases to operate in the country. Large American Air Force and Navy bases were closed in the early 1990s after contentious debate in the Philippine Senate, but the 1952 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty -  upon which the military relationship is based - has remained intact.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, American military involvement in the Philippines focused on Islamic extremist groups operating in the southern part of the country. In recent years, broader defense coordination has taken place, including American assistance for the outdated naval forces of the Philippines.

The United States currently has no military bases in the Philippines, though visits by American Navy ships and joint drills are common. In October, the United States and the Philippines conducted war games on the island of Palawan, 50 miles from the disputed area with China.

Mr. Casiple, the analyst, noted that the Philippine government has been careful to balance these military gestures with the recognition that the country needs to maintain close and cordial economic ties with China.

"The Philippines does not want to be the representative of the U.S. military in Southeast Asia," he said. "I think the Philippine government wants to maintain its friendship with both these great powers and not become a ball in the middle being kicked by both sides."

The US military presence is sensitive in the Philippines due to the colonial legacy, and a small number of left-wing activists protested Clinton's visit, accusing the US of using the former colony for its own profits.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has voiced support for expanding military cooperation with the US.

The Philippines has sought to rally Southeast Asian nations to stand firm with China over the maritime dispute, but Beijing has insisted that it only opens to bilateral negotiations.

Clinton will later visit Thailand ― another US ally in Southeast Asia ― in a show of support for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as she faces the devastating months-long floods.

Aside from the South China Sea dispute, the US has accused China of undervaluing its currency and undercutting its intellectual property.

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