Updated at 3:55 p.m. ET on 2019-07-16
Defense ties between long-time allies the Philippines and United States are strong and vital to security in the Indo-Pacific region despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s perceived leaning toward Beijing, officials representing Manila and Washington said Tuesday.
Defense officials and diplomats from both countries wrapped up an annual “bilateral strategic review” after two days of talks in Manila, where they discussed Beijing’s vast claims to the disputed South China Sea and efforts to defeat Islamic State (IS) militants, among a host of issues.
“The relationship is very strong,” Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippine ambassador to the U.S., told reporters in Manila, adding that Washington was particularly concerned about Beijing’s reported recent testing of anti-ship ballistic missiles in the South China Sea.
Romualdez was discussing the Eighth Annual U.S.-Philippines Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, which ended on Tuesday.
David Stilwell, who was on his first official trip to Manila in his new role as U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also represented Washington at the meeting.
“As a treaty ally, our partnership with the Philippines is critical for realizing our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, with sovereign thriving nations,” Stilwell said in a statement, adding that a strong bilateral alliance “deters aggression and promotes regional stability.”
“As a claimant state in the South China Sea, the Philippines is well-positioned to ensure that the ASEAN code of conduct text is fully consistent with international law, protecting the freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea for all countries, as well as the rights of claimant states to pursue security and development arrangements with partners of their choosing,” he added.
The Philippines, along with fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, have overlapping claims to the sea along with China and Taiwan.
Despite an agreement to refrain from undertaking actions that could provoke conflict, China has continued to expand and militarize territories that it claims in the maritime region.
After their bilateral meetings in Manila, U.S. and Filipino officials issued a joint statement saying that participants “recognized the importance of a strong Philippines-U.S. alliance in enhancing security cooperation and promoting regional stability and prosperity.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had earlier stated that under a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, the Philippines automatically would call on U.S. forces to respond if it came under attack, Tuesday’s statement said.
“Noting this, senior officials discussed a wide variety of issues of mutual interest and reaffirmed their commitment to deepening the alliance and expanding areas of cooperation,” the joint statement added.
“In this context, both sides commit to begin planning on a range of activities to improve maritime domain awareness,” it said. “Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to uphold freedom of navigation, overflight and other lawful uses of the SCS [South China Sea], and stressed the importance of peacefully resolving disputes in accordance with international law, as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.”
Maritime peace was tested recently when a Chinese trawler sank a Filipino fishing boat in an area within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). A Vietnamese boat rescued 22 Filipino fishermen who were left floating at sea.
The Philippine government lodged a diplomatic protest but Duterte later said that based on investigations, the sinking was a “maritime incident” that should not create problems between Manila and the China, a country he has been courting since becoming president in 2016.
The government has since agreed to a joint investigation with the Chinese.
Tensions between the Philippines and China over territories in the South China Sea have lasted for years.
In 2012, China seized the Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile EEZ after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy. Four years later, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines over China, saying there was no legal basis for Beijing to claim historical rights in the sea region.
In addition to the China discussions, the U.S. agreed to assist the Philippines in taking on IS militants, including those who survived the 2017 battle of Marawi and fled to remote territories in the south where military officials have said the extremists are recruiting members.
Both countries view the group as a threat to peace two years after pro-IS fighters were defeated by Filipino forces with the help of American intelligence following a five-month siege by militants in the southern city of Marawi.
In 2019, IS-linked militants have carried out bombings that killed 23 people at a church on Jolo, an island in the southern Philippines, followed by a more recent attack that killed eight people at an army camp there, according to Filipino officials.
“We are committed to continuing our partnership with the Philippines to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups, as well as to counter violent extremism,” Stilwell said, using another acronym for the Islamic State.
A small number of U.S. forces have helped their Filipino allies gather intelligence but are barred from actual combat operations. In Marawi in 2017, U.S. forces deployed drones and intelligence gathering aircraft over the area, and their data helped Philippine troops pinpoint enemy targets.
On Tuesday, officials agreed to enhance their military cooperation to include an enhanced defense cooperation agreement giving legal cover for U.S. troops to rotate in and out of the country for extended stays, as well as allow them to build and operate facilities inside Philippine bases.