MANILA, Philippines (1st UPDATE) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday vowed military support for the Philippines, delivering a firm message from the deck of an American warship at a time of rising tensions with China.
On a steaming hot day on Manila Bay, Clinton boarded the USS Fitzgerald, a US Navy destroyer based in California, as she signed a declaration marking 60 years since the United States signed a security treaty with its former colony.
Clinton promised a wide-ranging commitment to the Philippines from military to economic cooperation, saying that the United States wanted to update its historic alliances to meet the "new challenges" of the 21st century.
"We must ensure that this alliance remains strong, capable of delivering results for the people of the Philippines and the United States and our neighbors throughout the Pacific," Clinton said.
Clinton said the United States wanted to work with the Philippines on security issues, "particularly in the maritime domain as you move to improve your territorial defense and interdiction capability."
Clinton did not directly mention China, which the Philippines and Vietnam accuse of increasingly aggressive tactics in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Del Rosario, speaking alongside Clinton on the USS Fitzgerald, said that the statement sent a strong signal on the disputes in what he called the West Philippine Sea.
The statement "attests to the vitality of our alliance, especially at a time when the Philippines is facing challenges on its territorial integrity in the West Philippine Sea," he said.
The joint declaration between the two countries marking 60 years of relations also called for "freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce and transit of people across the seas".
Echoing a theme that the United States will likely push at a weekend East Asia Summit in Bali, the statement called for a "rules-based approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas."
The US military presence is sensitive in the Philippines due to the colonial legacy, and a small number of left-wing activists protested Clinton's visit, accusing the United States of using the country for its own ends.
But amid the disputes with China, President Benigno Aquino has voiced support for expanding military cooperation with the United States focused on containing Islamic extremists in the remote southern Philippines.
Clinton later entered talks with Aquino, who is working to upgrade the Philippines' notoriously outdated military, whose navy consists mostly of ships retrofitted from US forces in World War II.
An official accompanying Clinton said that the United States was looking at providing a second warship to the Philippines after delivering a reconditioned US Coast Guard cutter in August.
Clinton will also sign a pact bringing the Philippines into an initiative called the Partnership for Growth, which directs the US government to find ways to boost trade and investment with the next round of emerging economic powers.
She started her one-day visit at the foreign ministry, where she smiled warmly as she was welcomed by a band playing a folk song on the angklung, a traditional bamboo instrument.
The Philippines has sought to rally Southeast Asian nations to stand firm with China over the maritime dispute, seeing strength in numbers, but Beijing has insisted that it will only deal with each country on its own.
Clinton will head later Wednesday to Thailand -- the other treaty-bound US ally in Southeast Asia -- in a show of support for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as she faces the daunting task of major floods.
Yingluck is the sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup that set off chaos in the kingdom. Washington has been concerned that instability in its oldest Asian ally would pose new challenges for its Asia policy.
A State Department official accompanying Clinton said that she would deliver a message that "it is in the national security and political interest of the United States to have this government succeed".