MANILA – The United States envoy in the Philippines affirmed Thursday the strong military cooperation between Washington and Manila, saying American presence would continue in the contested South China Sea.
Warships of the US, which has for long been insisting on freedom of navigation in the waters, have been sailing through the waterway, including in a recent multilateral naval drill with the navies of the Philippines, Japan, and India.
Speaking to reporters at a media forum in Quezon City, US Ambassador to Manila Sung Kim insisted Washington’s interest in the strategic sea lane, through which nearly one-third of global shipping passes annually.
“The South China Sea is a very important area for all of us,” Kim said.
“Even though we are not a claimant, we take very serious interest in what’s happening in the South China Sea, and that’s why we work very hard to protect freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight. These are principles and values that are important for all of us, not just for the Pacific region, but for the international community that’s why we’re carrying out freedom of navigation operations.”
China claims almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea and has been continuously constructing military and industrial outposts on its artificial islands.
The Philippines has claims to the waters, and won an arbitration case before a United Nations-backed tribunal against China’s nine-dash line claim in July 2016. Beijing has, however, disregarded this even as it pursued bilateral negotiations with Manila.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have partial claims.
Kim maintained the US has the Philippines’ back in case of an armed attack in the disputed area, as expressed during the visit of US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in March.
The US is the country's closest defense ally.
“The South China Sea is part of the Pacific, therefore our obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty clearly applies to situations in the South China Sea,” the diplomat said in reference to the 1951 defense pact between the US and the Philippines.
"This is a very close alliance relationship so there’s constant communications between the two sides. Just last year, we had over 250 joint military activities so there are many, many occasions, opportunities for us to discuss various aspects of the alliance and I look forward to continuing that through dialogue with the Defense secretary and leaders of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.”
Kim said the coast guards of the Philippines and the US are also expected to carry out more activities together following joint search-and-rescue exercises on May 14.
During then, the Bertholf, a California-based 418-foot national security cutter currently deployed in the Indo-Pacific, trained with Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessels BRP Batangas and BRP Kalanggaman on small boat search-and-rescue tactics in a mock rescue scenario.
“We had a terrific visit by the US coast guard last week and they conducted very productive exercises with the Philippine coast guard, and I do expect that cooperation will continue. I’m talking to both our coast guard and the Philippine coast guard, and there’s a tremendous satisfaction to the quality, caliber of cooperation last week, and there’s a strong interest in doing more in the future,” Kim said.