US show of force to mark 60th year of defense pact

by Rodney Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at Aug 12 2011 11:24 AM | Updated as of Aug 13 2011 01:24 AM

WASHINGTON D.C. - The United States will send one of its highest military officers and a nuclear-carrier battle group to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its defense pact with the Philippines this month.

Speaking before the Asia Society Thursday evening, US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas Jr. reiterated the American position that although it will not meddle in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it is committed to the defense of the Philippines.

“The United States is a longstanding treaty ally of the Philippines,” he told a largely Filipino-American audience, “We are a strategic partner and we will remain that way.”

The Philippines is one of only two countries in the Southeast Asian region with a defense treaty with the US. The Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) was signed in Washington DC on August 30, 1951.

The MDT was thrust to the forefront because of rising tensions in the Spratly Islands that are claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

The Philippines protested China’s harassment of its research ships exploring for oil and gas deposits in the area. China has also built structures that encroach on Philippine territorial waters, officials in Manila charged.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the Philippines has been forced to rely on the deterrence of the American security umbrella promised by the MDT.

When Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario conferred with State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Washington DC last June, he received an assurance the US will help build Philippine military capabilities to defend its borders.

“We don’t take sides in this issue and we expect people to exercise restraint. This is something that should be negotiated on the table in a peaceful manner,” Thomas explained.

When he returns to Manila next week, Thomas will be followed by Gen. Norton Schwartz, the US Air Force chief. His arrival comes in the heels of the visit of another ranking US military official, Pacific Command chief Admiral Robert Willard, on the last week of July.

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John Stennis (CVN-74) and her escort flotilla are scheduled to arrive in Manila on the last week of August, after leaving her home port in Washington state last July 25.

She rendezvoused with the rest of Carrier Strike Group-3 that is composed of the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay and ships under Destroyer Squadron 21 that includes the USS Pinckney, USS Kidd, USS Dewey and USS Wayne Meyer that left San Diego last July 29.

After their Philippine stop, the battle group will take up station to support US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 1,000-foot John Stennis has a crew of 5,000 officers and men and has 4 strike fighter squadrons, 2 combat helicopter squadrons and the 2 other squadrons for electronic warfare and airborne early warning.

“This shows our commitment to the Philippines,” Thomas stressed.

Amid fears that China could fill a perceived power vacuum in the South China Sea, the American envoy insisted that the US will continue to have a military presence in the region as he revealed that American warships make about a hundred port visits in the Philippines every year.

As the US gets ready to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the American envoy said, “We are very confident in the ability of the Philippine government to align with us to combat terrorism.”

He noted recent battlefield setbacks for the Philippine military pursuing the Abu Sayyaf. “The Philippine military has taken a few tough weeks and they’ve had to sacrifice,” Thomas noted, adding that “their families are crying out for justice.”

Thomas pointed out that top Al-qaeda leaders Ramzey Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed hatched a terror plot called Bojinka that is widely seen as the precursor to the use of jetliners in the 9-11 attacks, in Pasay City just a few kilometers from the US Embassy in Manila.