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Spratly Dispute Tops PH-US Summit in DC

WASHINGTON. Top Philippine officials will meet here with their US counterparts on April 30 for an unprecedented 2+2 summit in the wake of spiraling tensions over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin will meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to discuss the need to boost the military capabilities of the Philippines and study the possibility of enlarging the US military and maritime presence in that country.

Whatever agreement is reached in this summit will be finalized when Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III visits Washington upon the invitation of US President Barack Obama. In Manila, Aquino said his trip to DC will either be next month or in June.

Perhaps a sign of just how fraught the situation in the western Pacific, China and Russia on one side, the United States, Philippines, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam are due to hold almost simultaneous naval drills next month.

In what could become the largest drill ever held by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy in the West Pacific, the Chinese North Sea fleet and the Russian Pacific Fleet are to hold joint naval maneuvers in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea beginning in late April, running into May.

At almost the same time, about 2,000 miles to the south in the South China Sea, US and Filipino forces will stage their annual Balikatan drills. For the first time ever, the militaries of Japan, South Korea and Australia are to be involved, with combat practice to be held at much more sensitive spots than in the past.

As Beijing and Moscow play up their “Strategic Partnership” in the North, the Balikatan exercises will be held from April 16 to 27, involving approximately 4,500 US servicemen and 2,300 troops from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

For the first time, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces will send two field-grade officials. The militaries of Australia and South Korea will be represented while Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia are reportedly planning to join. England has also announced it would increase its presence in Southeast Asia.

Japan said it was studying plans to provide the Philippine Navy with new non-lethal ships that could help boost its capability to patrol the Spratly islands as well as respond to natural disasters, both on land and at sea.

Intriguingly, the geographical focus of this year’s combat drills has been shifted from the northern island of Luzon, the Philippines’ main island, to Palawan in the South China Sea, nearer to the disputed Spratly islands, various parts of which are claimed Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines and all of it by China.

This came as China’s foreign ministry warned claimants to the Spratlys against threatening the peace of the region by violating its “uncontestable sovereignty” over the Nansha islands (Spartlys).
The warning came as the Philippines started building a docking facility in the Recto and Reed Banks (Kalayaans) which it said do not belong to the Spratlys but near Palawan. Vietnam is also reportedly building structures in the Paracels.

The Manila Mail’s associate editor and Philippine Star bureau chief in Washington Lito Katigbak said the four leaders will discuss Philippine defense needs and a military expansion of US forces in the Philippines in addition to the current rotating force about 600 US troops in Mindanao.

China urged rival claimants to avoid escalating and complicating the South China Sea dispute and avoid taking actions that damage peace in the area.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei reiterated that China owns “indisputable sovereignty” over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters, and China opposes any illegal activity that infringes upon its sovereignty over the islands.

“To maintain the peace and stability in the South China Sea complies with the common and fundamental interests of relevant countries in the area,” he added.
Early this month, Katigbak quoted the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Warshaw as saying the “United States should provide the Philippines with badly needed military hardware and any necessary training for its maritime defense in light of heightening tensions in the South China Sea.”

Warshaw is a research assistant in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
In his story published in the Star early this month, Warshaw was quoted as saying that “protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is clearly in America’s national interest and key to that is the Philippines.”

Filipino officials have expressed interest in acquiring a third cutter and a squadron of F-16s. The Philippines took delivery of a Coast Guard cutter last year and a second one is scheduled for delivery this year.

The best way for the US to guarantee stability in the South China Sea is by maintaining a forward deployed, ready military posture across the Western Pacific. Thankfully, the Philippines is proving a very willing, and increasingly capable ally, Warshaw said.

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