US President Barack Obama will on Tuesday visit the Philippine Navy’s flagship, the White House said, seeking to highlight American commitment to regional maritime security.
Obama will board the US-made Gregorio del Pilar shortly after arriving in the Philippine capital of Manila for annual trade talks with Asia-Pacific leaders, including China’s Xi Jinping.
“In the afternoon, the president will tour the BRP Gregorio del Pilar,” a White House statement said on Monday as it detailed Obama’s plans for his first of three days in Manila.
Obama’s aides had earlier said the president planned an event that showcased “US maritime security assistance to the Philippines and the region”.
The White House statement detailed the venue, with the frigate a symbolic choice as it was formerly a US Coast Guard cutter that was acquired by the Philippines in 2011.
Obama’s move risks irking China, which is embroiled in a bitter territorial row over the South China Sea with the Philippines and some of its other Asian neighbors.
China had made clear it hoped the focus of the two-day APEC summit, which starts on Wednesday, would solely be on trade talks and not touch on the South China Sea.
But US National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in Washington last week that the South China Sea would be a “central issue” during Obama’s time in Asia.
After Manila, Obama will travel to Malaysia for another regional summit.
In the same briefing as Rice, national security aide Ben Rhodes said Obama’s visit to the then-unnamed maritime facility was aimed at comforting nervous Asian allies.
“Clearly, in our alliance with the Philippines and our focus in the region, we have been committed to maritime security, to principles like freedom of navigation, and to the peaceful resolution of disputes,” Rhodes said.
“This event will be an opportunity for the president to showcase some of that maritime security assistance.”
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of its neighbors.
China’s building of artificial islands in waters close to the Philippines, a longstanding US ally, prompted the American military to recently deploy a missile destroyer and B-52 bomber planes to the area.
China regularly insists the United States has no role to play in the territorial dispute.
Washington says it takes no sides, but that freedom of navigation must be maintained in the sea, which is home to some of the world’s most important shipping routes.