PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte and United States (US) Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin 3rd have agreed to bolster the two countries' alliance, particularly in fighting the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic, illegal drugs and other transnational crimes, and promoting trade and investments.

The commitment was reached when Duterte met with Austin, who relayed the US intent to forge stronger ties with the Philippines as a "equal sovereign partner."

The Pentagon chief, who arrived in Manila on Thursday for a two-day visit, paid a courtesy call on Duterte in Malacañang on Thursday, July 29.

"President Duterte and Secretary Austin had an open and frank discussion on the status and future direction of Philippine-US engagement as the two countries commemorate this year the 75th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations and 70th Anniversary of the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty," the Palace said in a statement.

"They agreed that the alliance can be further strengthened through enhanced communication and greater cooperation, particularly in the areas of pandemic response, combating transnational crimes, including the war on illegal drugs, maritime domain awareness, the rule of law, and trade and investments," it added.

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The Palace said the President also expressed appreciation for the US' assistance in the country's fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Duterte said that "the Philippines is among the beneficiaries of the Covax facility where the US is the largest contributor," the Palace said.

"The Philippines recently received more than 3 million vaccine doses under this facility," it added.

Austin, for his part, told Duterte that the US "wants a strong relationship with the Philippines as an equal sovereign partner," according to the Palace.

"Secretary Austin relayed President Joe Biden's greetings to the President and the President conveyed his well wishes for his US counterpart," the Palace said.

Austin is the first member of Biden's Cabinet to visit Southeast Asia this week. Before flying to Manila, he visited Vietnam and Singapore to revitalize US ties.

The Palace said Austin's courtesy call on the President, which was requested by the US Embassy, lasted 75 minutes.

Austin, who is on official visit in Manila until July 30, will also meet with his Philippine counterpart, Defense Chief Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

Austin's trip to the Philippines comes amid tensions between Beijing and Manila due to maritime and territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

The Pentagon chief had criticized China's actions in the hotly contested sea, where Beijing has overlapping claims with several states in the region, saying it "has no basis in international law."

He had stressed that he would emphasize US commitment to freedom of navigation during his overseas trip.

Meanwhile, Austin and Lorenzana are likely to discuss Manila and Washington's Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which is in limbo after Duterte's decision last year to abrogate it.

Duterte ordered the abrogation of the VFA in February 2020, supposedly in response to the US revocation of the visa of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, who served as the country's national police chief at the height of the administration's bloody war on drugs.

The President has since suspended the termination of the agreement three times, since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.