MANILA - US President Barack Obama on Tuesday said his government will donate 2 more naval ships to the Philippines.
Obama met with Philippine defense officials during a short visit at the naval ship BRP Gregorio Del Pilar in Manila Bay.
BRP Del Pilar was formerly the high endurance cutter "Hamilton" that was commissioned into the US Coast Guard on March 1967. The 3,390-ton naval ship was transferred to the Philippine government and commissioned into the Philippine Navy on December 2011.
Obama's visit to the Philippine Navy is a testament to a defense cooperation agreement made last year that opened anew access of US forces to some Philippine military bases.
The agreement also forms part of a broader move by the US to make its presence felt in the region considering tensions in the West Philippine Sea over disputed shoals and territories between China and the Philippines.
During his speech, Obama said his government will donate two more naval ships to the Philippines, one that can be used for research in maritime areas, while the other is a cutter-type ship, just like BRP Gregorio del Pilar, that will be used to beef up patrols in the West Philippine Sea.
Obama said the "US remains committed to its alliance with Philippines," calling it unbreakable.
He said the US is committed to maintaining security in the region and ensuring freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea.
"The United States has been committed to the security of this region for more than 70 years. We have a treaty obligation, an iron-clad commitment to the defense of our ally the Philippines, who can count on the United States," Obama said.
In a statement on its website, the White House said "Obama is committed to safeguarding customary international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce, and peaceful management and resolution of disputes--the central principles on which the region's security and prosperity rest--including through a global program of freedom of navigation operations."
It emphasized that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, and they support the right of all countries to do the same.
The donation of two more ships in the Philippines, the White House added, is a testament of the US' close cooperation with their allies as they work to build the capacity of regional partners to address potential threats in their waters through enhanced maritime capability and maritime domain awareness.
"We are expanding our maritime capacity-building assistance, committing $119 million to this effort in FY 2015 and seeking $140 million in FY 2016," it said.
The White House said: "We will promote the use of third-party dispute settlement mechanisms, such as those under the Law of the Sea Convention, to underscore that international law should be the sole basis for maritime claims in the region; we applaud the Philippines' use of these mechanisms in dealing with law of the sea disputes in the South China Sea".
It further said that during the trip to Manila, "President Obama will continue to urge all claimants in the South China Sea to halt further land reclamation, construction of new facilities, and militarization of features they occupy, in order to reduce tensions and create diplomatic space for lasting, lawful, and peaceful solutions to emerge."
BRP Del Pilar is the biggest naval warship and flagship of the Philippine Navy named in honor of General Gregorio Del Pilar, the hero of Tirad Pass.
The naval ship has primarily been deployed in the West Philippine Sea protecting the country's maritime interests. The 378-feet ship has also been deployed for humanitarian assistance missions, most notably during the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.
Late on Tuesday, Obama will hold a bilateral meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The agenda includes cooperation on counter-ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] coalition, maritime security, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
On Wednesday morning, Obama will hold a bilateral meeting with President Aquino where the two presidents may discuss the South China Sea dispute and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the two countries.
Aside from Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard, the Arleigh Burke-class USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) of the US is also in Manila Bay in general support of APEC, according to the website of the US Embassy in Manila. The ship's five-day support mission is in conjunction with its routine patrol in the 7th Fleet area of operations.
During its short visit, there will be no scheduled liberty for U.S. Sailors aboard.