MANILA - The Philippines and U.S. military are considering the development of a force capable of handling the Philippines' strategic interest in the South China Sea, a high-ranking U.S. military official said Wednesday.
The statement comes amid rising tension between China and other neighboring countries over some disputed areas in the South China Sea.
During the closing of the two countries' military exercises dubbed Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) 2013, Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, commander of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces in the Pacific, said that while the territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region will have to be worked on through diplomatic channels, "having a strong defense" is also one tool that can be used, although, he hopes, as a last resort.
"One of the things that I talked to (Philippine military chief) Gen. (Emmanuel) Bautista about was a roadmap for us training with the armed forces of the Philippines," Robling told reporters.
He said they hoped to get the forces to the point of a "national maneuver force" that is best designed for territorial defense.
"I think, at some point, that will happen, but probably, not in the next exercise," he added.
The Philippines remains locked in a territorial row with China over parts of the Spratly group of islands and the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Tensions flared up in 2011, with the Philippines bringing the issue before the United Nations for arbitration.
The dispute has prompted the Philippine military to shift its strategic focus to territorial defense from internal security threats, which had concentrated on the suppression of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group and communist rebels.
Last year, two missions under the umbrella of Balikatan 2012 were conducted in waters off Palawan province in the central Philippines which is close to the South China Sea, although officials of both countries stated those were not directed at China.
Maj. Gen. Virgilio Domingo, the Balikatan 2013 exercise director from the Philippine side, said officials for Balikatan 2014 will have to discuss whether similar drills will be held again in Palawan.
China for the first time participated Monday in a multinational maritime disaster response tabletop discussion under Balikatan 2013. Beijing's representative joined other delegates from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam.
Hailing it as an accomplishment by itself, China's participation was also regarded by Robling as "very significant" not only in showing the transparency of Balikatan, but also toward the objective of making China a "better partner in the future" in the aspect of humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
"Humanitarian affairs and disaster relief operations -- there is no one country that has domain over that. We need every country in the region to be able to hold together and help countries in need," Robling said.
In his formal remarks at Wednesday's closing ceremony, Robling said Balikatan 2013, which opened April 5, not only strengthened the Philippines and U.S. forces' combined ability to defend each other, but it also "improved the multinational military and civilian disaster response coordination in Southeast Asia and throughout the region."
"We continue to share our long-standing relationship that has contributed to the regional security and stability, one deeply rooted in the Balikatan spirit of cooperation," he said.
Even with the fresh threats from North Korea, Balikatan proved to be an opportunity for the Philippines and the United States to ensure their "operational readiness" against "any emergency that both our countries may face," Domingo added.
"For whatever assistance the United States may require, or we may require from them, I guess, this Balikatan exercise is a test of how we can work together, shoulder to shoulder," he said.
Officials of both countries, meanwhile, expressed interest in eventually expanding Balikatan in the future to include other countries such as Australia and Japan.
Domingo said Australia's participation, for example, "will improve and broaden the perspective of the joint and combined exercises," noting its own unique capabilities.
Some 8,000 American and Philippine troops participated in Balikatan 2013, which also included engineering and humanitarian projects, and with the United States sending C-130s, F-18 Hornets and MV-22 Ospreys.