The Philippines is looking to its alliance with the United States to try to keep up with China’s reclamation activities in disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Senior officials from both countries strengthened their strategic alliance during two days of bilateral talks on trade and defense that ended Wednesday in Manila.
High on the agenda was maritime security, as well as concerns about China’s ongoing reclamation work on reefs and shoals in the Spratly Islands that the Philippines claims.
Last month the Philippine military’s chief of staff said based on intelligence information, facilities at one of the larger outcroppings, Fiery Cross Reef, could be completed soon.
Philippine Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino calls development at the reef, which in November appeared to be expanding to accommodate an airstrip, “a very serious concern.” But the Philippines, with one of the smallest military budgets in Asia, is powerless to stop any of it.
“We have to increase our capabilities and that will only come through modernization," Batino said. "This is a realization of course ... of the needed modernization that we needed to implement earlier.”
U.S. Defense Assistant Secretary David Shear told reporters after the meeting his department’s 2015 budget includes $40 million in military loans for the Philippines.
The country is in the midst of implementing a five-year $1.8 billion military modernization program, but the country will still have tiny naval and air fleets compared to its neighbors.
With a lacking military, Manila is taking the diplomatic track. An international tribunal is reviewing its arbitration case against Beijing that questions what it calls China’s “excessive claims in the South China Sea.” China rejects arbitration and did not submit any supporting materials to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.
China has repeatedly said it has “indisputable sovereignty” over the sea and its hundreds of outcroppings.
Beijing's claims questioned
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Russel says the United States has consistently called on China to adhere to a non-binding declaration it signed with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on keeping the peace amid competing claims, and to follow international law as the basis for its sovereign claims in the resource-rich sea.
“Behavior that raises tensions, behavior that raises questions about China’s intention and behavior that would appear to be inconsistent with the principles that I have enumerated, work counter to those goals,” said Russel.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Evan Garcia says Manila is “after a peaceful resolution,” and Chinese reclamation activities on the disputed islands “are not a positive development.”