US plans more drills for freedom of seas

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The United States plans to increase the number of military and humanitarian drills it is conducting in the Asia-Pacific as part of a new strategy to counter China’s rapid expansion in the South China Sea, the Philippine military said yesterday.

Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Command, highlighted key aspects of the Pentagon’s freshly drafted Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy during talks with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Hernando Iriberri at Camp Aguinaldo.

Col. Restituto Padilla, spokesman for the military, told journalists that the report outlined Washington’s set of actions in the disputed South China Sea and East China Sea, focusing on the protection of “freedom of seas,” deterring conflict and coercion and promoting adherence to international law.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.

A military source, who was in the meeting between Harris and Iriberri, told Reuters the US and the Philippines are expected to increase the size, frequency and sophistication of exercises in the region.

Since China’s land reclamation efforts began in December 2013, it has reclaimed more than 1,170 hectares of land as of June 2015, the Pentagon said last week in a report on its Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy.

The reclamation campaign significantly outweighed efforts by other claimants in size, pace and nature, the Pentagon report said.

China says the outposts will have undefined military purposes, as well as help with maritime search and rescue, disaster relief and navigation.

During the meeting, Harris vowed to help the Philippines strengthen its intelligence gathering capabilities, as the Philippines and the US agreed to work together to maintain regional stability.

“It was agreed that developing the capability of the AFP is of paramount importance, specifically in the areas of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and command and control,” defense department spokesman Peter Galvez said.

“They agreed that they will be assessing how best they can assist us in those areas,” he said in a phone interview.

The Philippines and US agreed to cooperate in information-sharing and help maintain regional stability.

When asked if the information-sharing agreement will cover the South China Sea dispute, Galvez said: “It will be all-encompassing. It will cover all security concerns including maritime issues, anti-terrorism efforts and other transnational security issues.”

Galvez said Harris acknowledged that enhanced information sharing would further boost the interoperability between the AFP and the US Pacific Command.

Harris arrived in Manila yesterday for a three-day visit that aims to boost the security ties between the Philippines and the US.

Harris also met with with National Coast Watch Council Undersecretary Jose Alano. He capped his courtesy calls with a meeting with President Aquino at Malacañang.

The US Pacific Command official is scheduled to meet today with AFP Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alexander Lopez in Palawan.

Harris’ visit came as the Philippines is embroiled in a territorial row with China over the Spratly Islands and Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a fishing area located off Zambales.

US vows to help Philippine resupply missions

Gazmin said he asked the visiting US Pacific commander to help protect the transport of fresh Filipino troops and supplies to Philippine-occupied reefs in the disputed South China Sea by deploying American patrol planes to discourage Chinese moves to block the resupply missions.

The Philippines has protested past attempts by Chinese coast guard ships to block smaller boats transporting fresh military personnel, food and other supplies to a Filipino military ship outpost at the disputed Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, which is also being claimed and guarded by Chinese coast guard ships. The tense standoff at the shoal has lasted two years.

Gazmin said Harris assured him of US readiness to provide assistance, adding that the US military has flown an aircraft at least once when a Philippine boat delivered supplies last year to Filipino marines marooned on a rusty naval ship that ran aground years ago at the disputed shoal.

Such US military flights deter Chinese moves, Gazmin said, adding that Philippine resupply boats have been harassed less by Chinese coast guard ships after the deployment of the US patrol plane.

“If there are Americans flying around there, we won’t be troubled,” Gazmin told the AP. “We need to be helped in our resupply missions. The best way they could assist is through their presence.”

Ayungin Shoal, which is called Ren’ai by the Chinese, and the nearby Spratly Islands lie about 120 miles from the western Philippine province of Palawan, and about 700 miles from southern China. China’s foreign ministry says Beijing has “indisputable sovereignty” over the shoal.

The Philippine Navy deliberately ran one of its ships aground at the shoal in 1999, fearing that Chinese forces would occupy it after taking control of nearby Panganiban (Mischief) Reef four years earlier. A Chinese frigate and maritime surveillance ships arrived in 2013 and the uneasy standoff remains unresolved.

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