US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited Friday afternoon the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, capital of the Philippine island-province of Palawan, before flying to an American warship that is on patrol in the disputed West Philippine Sea.
Antonio Bautista is one of the five previously agreed military bases in the Philippines where American troops may temporarily hold station under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) between Manila and Washington. However, Carter had announced after his April 13 arrival in Manila that this number of bases would increase.
Senior military officials of the Western Command briefed Carter and his Philippine counterpart, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who accompanied the American visitor, before leaving for the USS John Stennis, according to a military official.
Carter arrived at the air base on board a C-17 Globemaster military transport aircraft while the Philippine defense and military officials arrived on board a C295 military transport plane.
The military source said the American and Filipino officials left Antonio Bautista on board a V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft that transported them to the USS John Stennis.
A statement from the Philippines’ Department of National Defense said the party, which flew over the vicinity of Recto Bank, landed on the Nimitz class aircraft carrier, where they witnessed the flight deck operations.
“They also were briefed on the Carrier’s history and taken on a tour around the ship,” the statement added. “Both Secretaries addressed the men and women of the Carrier Battle Group.”
It stressed that Carter thanked the American troops and sailors for their active participation in the US-PH Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) exercises, and impressed upon them the significance of their presence in the region.
The statement also said that Carter viewed China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea as “causing anxiety and raising tensions” in the region.
It quoted Carter as saying, “In response, countries in the Asia Pacific that are long standing allies and new partners are reaching out to the US to uphold the rules and principles that would allow the region to thrive, and we are answering that call, we are standing with these countries. We are standing up for those rules and principles.”
Gazmin expressed his gratitude to the sailors for taking part in the Balikatan exercises, highlighting the strength of the Philippine-US Alliance. “This is a clear exemplification of ‘honor, courage, commitment,’ the core values of the US Navy,” the statement quoted Gazmin.
He added, “We are as ever reliant on the strong bond of sympathy and mutual ideals shared by our two peoples, close friends and allies, to fight side-by-side against the threats of external aggression as we did in the past.”
The 10-day war games between the Philippines and the US ended Friday, with Carter saying that five American A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack jets, three H-60G Pavehawk helicopters and one MC-130H Combat Talon special forces infiltration aircraft will remain behind at the Clark Air Base along with 200 crewmembers. A US military facility between 1903 and 1992, Clark Air Base is more than 64 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Manila. ANTHONY VARGAS