The United States and Philippines reasserted longstanding military ties and agreed to boost cooperation next year in addressing regional security concerns such as maritime security and counterterrorism, top commanders from both countries said Friday as they ended a meeting in Metro Manila.
American and Philippine military brass, who gathered at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City for an annual meeting under the bilateral Mutual Defense and Security Engagement Boards, agreed that their forces would hold more engagements next year to 300 joint activities, from 281 this year, officials said.
The meeting took place amid a security threat posed by the presence of Islamic State (IS) militants in the southern Philippines and international tensions over Chinese expansionism in the contested South China Sea.
Adm. Philip Davidson, who commands U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific region, and Philippine military Chief of Staff Gen. Benjamin Madrigal led the talks. These serve as a forum where the allies coordinate plans for joint military activities for the year ahead.
“Today, we addressed regional security challenges together as friends, allies and partners,” the U.S. Embassy in Manila quoted Davidson as saying. “We will continue to stand together on the foundation of common interest and values. Our national security, including economic security, is reliant on a free and open Into-Pacific and rules-based international order.”
Washington has been asserting freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea, and has sailed warships through the disputed region. In August, a U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, docked in Manila. This show of force unfolded weeks after a Chinese trawler rammed into and sank a Filipino fishing boat in South China Sea waters claimed by the Philippines.
At their meeting on Friday, the American and Philippine military leaders also “reaffirmed their continuing and close relationship” by agreeing on “enhancing cooperation in counterterrorism, maritime security, cyber security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” among other security concerns, according to the embassy.
“The enhancement of our defense cooperation is the only way for us to move forward and be prepared for the challenges of this ever-evolving world,” Madrigal said.
The U.S. rotates its forces here under an enhanced defense cooperation agreement with Manila, which also allows them to pre-position some military equipment at Philippine bases. While President Rodrigo Duterte appears to have taken a soft stance toward China, the U.S. has said it was prepared to come to Manila’s defense under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
American forces were also instrumental in the battle of Marawi two years ago, helping overwhelmed Filipino forces gather intelligence that was crucial in killing Isnilon Hapilon, the local IS leader, and ending a five-month siege by pro-Islamic State militants in the southern Philippine city.
Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.