Military Alliance with US is on Strong Footing, Philippines Says

Felipe Villamor
180417-PH-alliance-620.jpg Guests gather aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt while anchored off Manila Bay in the South China Sea, April 13, 2018.

The Philippines said Tuesday its military alliance with the United States was built on a strong foundation of shared values, despite a widespread perception that Manila was increasingly gravitating toward America’s traditional rival, China.

The statement came three days after the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt hosted Manila dignitaries in the South China Sea.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana underscored both countries’ 67-year-old alliance as he witnessed the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a warehouse in a northern airbase where American forces could store supplies under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

“The U.S.-Philippines alliance is built on a strong foundation of shared values, sacrifices and history,” Lorenzana said.

Washington and Manila signed EDCA in 2012, granting the United States increased military presence in its former colony and allowing the rotation of ships and planes for humanitarian and maritime security operations. Nationalist groups have questioned EDCA before the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2016 that the agreement was constitutional.

“I know that EDCA is one of the sure ways to enhance our alliance and help promote peace and security in the region as it provides a framework through which both the Philippines and the United States will approach the evolving security challenges,” Lorenzana said.

“EDCA is a demonstration that our two nations are interested in long term solutions to shared problems,” he said.

Lorenzana said the agreement would also support the Philippines’ long-term goal of modernizing the military, long considered as one of the most ill-equipped in the region.

“The prepositioning of equipment and supplies in a consolidated location increases our ability to respond quickly,” Lorenzana emphasized, adding that the construction of the warehouse was a testament to the alliance.

US pledges unwavering commitment to its ally

Tuesday’s event came shortly after the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Rear Adm. Steve Koehler, stressed that the United States was unwavering in its commitment to its ally.

The carrier passed through the South China Sea on its way to Manila, in essence, to test the waters amid China’s threat to curb freedom of navigation in the disputed sea, officials said.

Dozens of top Philippine officials, including President Rodrigo Duterte’s top aide Salvador Medialdea, as well as diplomats and other guests, were ferried to the ship anchored off Manila Bay.

Washington’s envoy to Manila, Sun Kim, said the visit was a “clear sign, a clear reflection, a demonstration or our commitment” to the region.

“Our commitment to the U.S.-Philippine alliance is also our commitment to promoting and protecting important values, principles and rights like freedom of navigation,” Kim said. “This is an enduring friendship, partnership and I think the presence of this amazing, magnificent ship is a clear demonstration of that.”

The carrier’s visit comes days after China installed equipment on two of its fortified structures on the Spratlys that were said to be capable of jamming communication and radar systems, despite international concerns that it would be construed as militarizing the disputed region.

The Spratlys is a group of atolls and islands in the South China Sea claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

While all the parties have agreed to avoid taking any action that could inflame the situation, China over recent years has been expanding what were once underwater features in the contested waters and fortifying islands it has occupied.

Koehler did not respond directly when asked about China’s move, but said: “We will promote and ensure that those freedoms and those (waterways) are open to everybody. And so that’s what we’ve done here and that’s we’ll continue to do in the region, professionally, and safely, like all other navies that we’ve run into.”

Ambassador Kim said the strike group’s presence in Philippine waters is meant to show that the U.S. is serious when President Donald Trump said during a visit in the region in November that his government would “make sure to secure and promote an open and free” regional waterway.

The 1,092-foot ship carrying some of the U.S. Navy’s top combat arsenal proved Roosevelt’s famous adage of speaking softly while carrying a big stick, Kim said.

“But I might take exception to the first part of Teddy Roosevelt’s saying about speaking softly. I think there are times that we should speak loudly and clearly and the presence of Theodore Roosevelt here in Manila Bay sends a very clear message to everyone in the region especially to our friends in the Philippines,” he said.

“Because our commitment to the U.S.-Philippine alliance is unbreakable and will remain so indefinitely,” he said, emphasizing that Washington’s commitment was enduring.

Among others, Kim noted that the U.S. responded when the Philippines sought military assistance in defeating pro-Islamic State militants who had occupied the southern city of Marawi last year.

Duterte publicly has shown efforts to cultivate closer diplomatic and military relations with China since he took office in June 2016, but has accepted aerial surveillance help from Australia and the United States during the height of the Marawi fighting that killed 1,200 people, most of them militants.

The United States Agency for International Development has allocated $20.9 million to help Marawi residents, but the Philippine government is evaluating project proposals from a Chinese-led consortium to lead the reconstruction efforts in the southern city.


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