US committed to defense pact with Philippines

By Marichu Villanueva, The Philippine Star

Posted at Feb 25 2014 03:00 AM | Updated as of Feb 25 2014 11:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines - The United States is committed to fulfill its obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the Philippines even as there is full support for diplomatic resolution of territorial disputes with China and other claimant countries in the South China Sea.

Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of the US Pacific Fleet, reiterated this commitment yesterday as he met with Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista and Philippine Navy commander Jose Luis Alano.

The reiteration of US commitment came a few days after Adm. Jonathan Greenert, naval operations chief of the US Navy, made a statement that stirred some controversy. Greenert was quoted as telling a military academic discussion about the 1951 MDT being implemented in case of Chinese aggression in the contested Pagasa islands in the West Philippine Sea.

“Greenert reiterated the strength of the Mutual Defense Treaty. He reaffirmed the US commitment to the Philippines with the Mutual Defense Treaty and I agree with that completely,” Harris stressed, quickly adding: “And I want to underscore the US-Philippine treaty obligations and we live up to that obligation.”

Harris arrived in Manila Sunday night. He met yesterday with Philippine military officials before he left last night.

In an exclusive interview with The STAR, Harris underscored the important role that the Philippines plays in Asia.

“What makes the Philippines, from our perspective, is it’s a full treaty partner,” Harris pointed out.

Currently, he cited, the US only has seven bilateral treaties worldwide and one of them is the MDT with the Philippines. “But the Philippines is a leader in Asia,” he added.

Harris also reiterated there is no talk about renewing the abrogated Philippine-US military bases agreement in the ongoing discussions for rotational visits by US forces.

“We are not going to base anything in the Philippines. This is about access and use of Philippine facilities in order to work together,” he stressed. “Whatever the Philippine government wants US to have - this is part of the agreement that is being negotiated.”

President Aquino earlier disclosed the Philippines is “very close” to completing an agreement to boost the number of US troops allowed into the country at a time of growing tension over territorial disputes with China.

“We applaud the recent action of the Philippine government to moderate Chinese behavior for international venues as a means in resolving dispute… This is a mark of a mature nation to resolve this dispute diplomatically and not with coercion but other peaceful means,” Harris stressed.

He was referring to the international arbitration court at the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) where the Philippines has taken its territorial dispute with Beijing on the South China Sea.

On the part of the US, Harris said continuing military-to-military talks with Chinese officials are also being done. He cited the talks of US Army chief of staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, who met with his Chinese counterpart Lt. Gen. Wang Ninga a few days ago in Beijing, as well as the recent visit to China by US vice chief of operations Adm. Mark Fergusson, who met with Adm. Wu Sheng-li, chief of China Navy.

“I am hoping that we continue to have a strong military to military relationship with China over the next years, with openness and not shrouded with opaqueness,” Harris said.

“On the other hand, we want to have strong and positive relationship with China. Gen. Odierno’s visit to Chiba is indicative of that,” the admiral pointed out.

The US Pacific Commander admitted, however, the US views with concern the lack of transparency of China, especially with its recent unilateral decision to impose the controversial air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

When he assumed his post last October, Harris said there was no change in their operations even after China announced the ADIZ.

“As far as the US Navy operations go, we are conducting our operations at sea and in the air through and in the so-called Chinese identification zone without respect for the zone itself. Business as before,” he declared. – With Pia Lee Brago