Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday reaffirmed the U.S. defense commitment to the Philippines amid rising tensions between Manila and Beijing over disputed islands in the South China Sea. Clinton met with Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario who said his country is prepared to stand up to “aggressive actions” in its neighborhood.
Clinton emphasised the United States’ determination to see a peaceful political solution to the multi-nation dispute over South China Sea islands and sea lanes.
But she also pointedly stressed the U.S. commitment to the Philippines under their now 60-year-old mutual defense treaty.
The Secretary met her Philippines counterpart against a backdrop of rising tensions between the Philippines and China, and also Vietnam and Beijing, over the nearly two million square kilometer ocean area that includes the Spratley and Paracel Islands, and may have vast oil and gas resources.
Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have varying claims in the region that conflict with China’s assertion of control to virtually the entire area.
At a press event with del Rosario, Clinton read a long statement reaffirming U.S. support for a diplomatic solution - and urging restraint and an end to provocative actions by all concerned parties.
She said the defense treaty is a pillar of U.S.-Philippines relations and regional stability, while declining specific comment on what Washington would do in the event of a Chinese attack on Filipino navy vessels.
“The United States honors our mutual defense treaty and our strategic alliance with the Philippines," said Clinton. "I’m not going to discuss hypothetical events. But I want to underscore our commitment to the defense of the Philippines.”
Foreign Secretary del Rosario, for his part, said that while the Philippines is a small country it will stand up stand up to aggression, saying Chinese “intrusions” in areas claimed by the Philippines are becoming more frequent.
“Since February 25th, we actually have noted as many as nine intrusions of different varieties, but clearly becoming more aggressive and more frequent," said del Rosario. "We have, of course, responded to these intrusions in term of filing diplomatic protests. And we have gotten a response which is in our view not acceptable. These are responses that where China is claiming that the South China Sea is totally within their sovereignty.”
Clinton said the United States will take up the issue with Beijing this weekend, when Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell holds a political dialogue with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai in Hawaii.
The Chinese official said Wednesday the United States is not a party to the dispute and should leave the matter to the various claimants.
Secretary Clinton, however, said the United States has a “national interest” in freedom of navigation, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.
She noted that the United States and the Philippines will hold joint naval exercises at the end of this month in waters west of Manila and near the contested area.
She also said the United States is prepared to consider providing the Philippines, which has limited naval capabilities, with affordable “additional assets” to help provide for the country’s defense. Del Rosario also met in Washington with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.