Four U.S. senators visiting Manila have been discussing the South China Sea territorial dispute and touting their support for the Philippines.
Arizona Senator John McCain reiterated the U.S. stance that there is no need to have any sort of confrontation with China over issues related to the South China Sea. But he also said it is important to strengthen U.S. ties with Manila.
"We think that it's important for us and other ASEAN nations as well as the Philippines to emphasize that we will do whatever we need to do in order to protect the principle of freedom of navigation, particularly in the West Philippine Sea," McCain said.
McCain and the other senators used the preferred local name when referring to the disputed sea, which has some of the world's most heavily traveled sea lanes. The region is believed to have vast oil and gas reserves and also provides abundant fishing. China says it owns practically the entire sea based on a centuries-old map. But the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to part or all of the sea.
Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He says keeping peace and order means always being ready for war.
"China has made claims over the West Philippine Sea - the South China Sea - that I don't accept and I know the Philippine government doesn't accept," said Lieberman. "The question is how do we reconcile those differences? I think we have a better chance of reconciling them peacefully, as Senator McCain says, if we both strengthen the Philippine military and we continue, and I hope even expand, our presence here on the waters here."
Lieberman pointed to the installation in the Philippines in August of a used American Hamilton-class cutter that is now the country's largest military ship. The Philippines is expected to take possession of another one this year and two more in the future. The BRP Gregorio del Pilar patrols waters along a natural gas drilling project in the South China Sea.
China has expressed displeasure numerous times about U.S. input on the disputes in the South China Sea, such as vocal support for multilateral talks among claimant countries. China continues to emphasize one-on-one talks with each party.
Earlier this month, the Philippines protested what it calls intrusions in mid-December by Chinese vessels and a military ship into waters it says were well within the country's exclusive economic zone. The United Nations designates an exclusive economic zone as a 370 kilometer area beyond a country's coastline. China called the protest baseless.
Last year, the Philippines cited about nine instances of alleged Chinese intrusions into its waters. One allegation accused Chinese boats of harassing an oil exploration ship. China has repeatedly said there were no intrusions.