SINGAPORE: The United States (US) on Saturday reaffirmed its commitment to a defense treaty with the Philippines, which is currently embroiled in a territorial dispute with Beijing over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The pledge came as US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met his Philippine counterpart Voltaire Gazmin on the sidelines of an annual security forum in Singapore set to be dominated by Beijing’s growing might.
The Philippines, a former US colony, is involved not only in a row with China but also Taiwan over the recent killing of a Taiwanese fisherman along their sea border.
“Secretary Hagel emphasized the importance of the Philippines as a treaty ally and reaffirmed the United States commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told journalists after the meeting.
“Secretary Hagel stressed the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation in the region,” he added.
Both defense chiefs “also discussed deepening bilateral defense cooperation including work towards increasing rotational presence of US forces in (the) Philippines to address common challenges,” Little said.
The Philippines and the US, whose soldiers fought side by side in the Pacific theatre during World War II, are bound to help defend each other in case of external attacks under a mutual defense treaty signed in 1951.
The Philippines has one of Asia’s most poorly equipped armed forces and has been protesting Chinese efforts to enforce Beijing’s claims to the entire South China Sea, including waters and islands near the Philippine coast.
The Philippines along with Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam as well as China and Taiwan have laid full or partial claim to the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop vast deposits of natural gas and hosts vital shipping lanes.
The US on Saturday offered to host a meeting with Southeast Asian defence ministers in Hawaii next year, stepping up its efforts to counter growing Chinese influence in the region.
Hagel also invited his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to Hawaii.
“This weekend, in my meetings here in Singapore, I am extending an invitation to Asean defense ministers to meet together next year in Hawaii,” the Pentagon chief said.
“I believe this first-ever US-hosted meeting of Asean defense ministers will provide another opportunity for us to discuss a shared vision for a dynamic, peaceful and secure future for the region.”
Four of Asean’s 10 member states—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—as well as Taiwan are locked in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
Smaller Asean member countries like Laos and Cambodia have come under increasing Chinese economic and political influence, partly as a result of foreign aid from Beijing.
China has a free-trade agreement with Asean and is a key player in efforts to widen the pact to include other regional players like Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
The US is spearheading rival talks to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership that includes Latin America.