MANILA is keen on having an agreement with the US on joint patrols in disputed portions of the South China Sea, Philippine officials said during their 2+2 ministerial meeting in Washington D.C. on Jan. 12.
“The 2+2 meeting extensively discussed the South China Sea issue, with the US side reiterating the US ironclad commitment to the defense of the Philippines while the Philippines batting for joint patrols. The US also conveyed that it remains committed to the AFP’s modernization program,” Defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said Thursday.
The Philippine Navy, which is now undergoing modernization, is sorely lacking in ships capable of long-range patrols.
In the meeting, the US emphasized that it will not allow China to control the South China Sea and will act to ensure that freedom of navigation is respected.
It also stressed that they will continue to fly and sail whenever and wherever international law allows.
The US also committed to maintain presence in the South China Sea to include naval, sub-sea, air and special forces.
In addition, the US urged the Philippines to stay closely coordinated with respect to the developments in the South China Sea.
Noting China’s claim that it will not militarize the area, the US suggested the need for parties in the South China Sea to have a common and shared understanding of the term “militarization” to avoid growing tensions.
A common sense among the other parties would put pressure on China, it said.
At the close of their second high-level talks in Washington on Jan. 12, the foreign and defense chiefs of the Philippines and US issued a joint statement declaring the need for stronger military cooperation as China keeps expanding its presence in the waters also contested by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
To enhance security and defense cooperation, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and US Secretary of State John Kerry, together with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, committed to enhance the Philippines’ maritime security presence and maritime domain awareness.
To demonstrate such a commitment, Washington is transferring a third high-endurance cutter and a research vessel to the Philippines this year.
Both sides also agreed to coordinate closely on the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which is expected to boost the number of US troops rotating through the Philippines.
The officials also vowed to boost military-to-military cooperation and inter-operability through joint exercises, capacity-building, and intelligence sharing.
The meeting, called the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, is the highest level policy consultative mechanism between the Philippine and US governments. This was their first meeting since 2012.
The ministers also discussed regional and global challenges that threaten peace and stability and the rule of law as Del Rosario and Gazmin welcomed the reaffirmation of the ironclad US commitment to the defense of the Philippines.
Recently, China conducted two test landings at the Fiery Cross Reef—one of the seven features in the South China Sea that was transformed into artificial islands by Beijing, triggering concerns from the Philippines, Vietnam and US.
In their statement, the ministers underscored the need “for all parties to refrain from provocative, unilateral actions that aim to change the status quo in the South China Sea.”
They also noted that the ruling of the UN Law of the Sea Convention arbitral tribunal on Manila’s case that seeks to invalidate China’s massive sea claim would be legally binding on both China and the Philippines.
The ministers also highlighted the importance of parties taking active steps to reduce tensions, including halting the reclamation, construction on, and militarization of outposts in the South China Sea and to refrain from any actions that harass, coerce, or intimidate other parties in the South China Sea.
“In particular, the ministers shared concern over recent test flights at Fiery Cross Reef, which exacerbate tensions and are inconsistent with the region’s commitments to exercise restraint from actions that could complicate or escalate disputes,” they said.
The ministers also expressed concern regarding large-scale land reclamation of occupied features, as well as the construction of new facilities and airstrips on them, and their impact on the marine environment, recognizing the importance of the South China Sea to the welfare and livelihoods of the many people who have for generations depended on the living resources of the South China Sea.
In a separate meeting, the Philippines has welcomed the US Senate’s support for President Barack Obama’s maritime security assistance to Asia amid China’s rapidly increasing presence over the waters.
Demonstrating its keen interest in the latest developments in the region, the Senate Armed Services Committee introduced the Maritime Security Initiative in its FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that allots $50 million to help enhance the maritime security capacities of countries in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines.
President Barack Obama first unveiled this maritime assistance plan when he was in Manila for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on Nov. 17, 2015.