The Philippines asked help from the United States military to strengthen its position in the South China Sea because it is experiencing harassment from China, according to the spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin made the request to Admiral Harry Harris, Jr., the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command during a meeting last week. Gazmin specifically requested for military assistance in resupplying and rotating the country’s forces in the South China Sea.
Philippines made specific requests to U.S. military
Colonel Restituto Padilla, the spokesperson of the AFP said, “It was a specific request on the part of the secretary of national defense to Harris to get their assistance in resupplying and rotating troops.”
Colonel Padilla added that Admiral Harris received the request of the Philippines but made no commitment because the “details have to be discussed.” According to him, the request is about the West Philippine Sea (referring to the closest part of the South China Sea).
A related report from Reuters also quoted a statement from Colonel Padilla explaining that the Philippines asked the United States to monitor “real-time developments in the South China Sea by providing surveillance and reconnaissance.
Colonel Padilla also elaborated that the Philippines asked Admiral Harris to provide air cover to a Philippine civilian ship that delivers supplies regularly to the Second Thomas Shoal (known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines)— a new flashpoint in the South China Sea.
“We want the U.S. military to watch over our ships, which China attempts to block every time we rotate troops and bring supplies to a ship that ran aground Ayungin shoal,” said Colonel Padilla.
In March last year, China prevented two Philippine civilian vessels from resupplying Marines stationed at the Second Thomas Shoal, which is only 105 nautical miles from the Philippines. The Philippine navy ship BRP Sierra Madre, a former U.S. tank-landing vessel ran aground the shoal in 1999. Since then, the vessel has been stationed there with several Filipino marines to strengthen the claim of the Philippines to its maritime territories.
Admiral Harris met Philippine Pres. Aquino
Admiral Harris met Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and he also visited the country’s military command on the western island of Palawan, the closest landmass to the South China Sea.
Philippine military stated that Admiral Harris visited the area to familiarize himself with the” situation on the ground.” Admiral Harris discussed the outline of the new report from Pentagon about the situation in the South China Sea during his meetings.
During a press conference, Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, Commander of military forces in Palawan said Admiral Harris expressed commitment to helping the Philippines, the oldest ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific. He also made it clear that the U.S. would prevent any conflict.
The Philippines does not have the resources to provide full protection for its own vessels in the South China Sea. Colonel Padilla admitted that the Philippine military is one of the weakest in the region. The Philippine government intends to increase its defense budget by 25% next year to modernize its military and strengthen its position in the South China Sea.
China irked by U.S. comments about the South China Sea
In recent years, the tension between the Philippines and China escalated due to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea including the Spratly Islands. Other countries in the region including Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan are also claiming parts of the South China Sea, a critical maritime route where $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually. The area is also a rich fishing ground and holds massive mineral resources.
The Philippines filed a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in connection with its territorial claims in the South China Sea. China refused to participate in the case and repeatedly asked the Philippines to withdraw and engage in bilateral talks.
Last month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel commented about the case during his speech before the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. He said, “We are not neutral when it comes to adhering to international law. We will come down forcefully when it comes to following the rules.” He also emphasized that China and Philippines are both signatories to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Therefore, they have to abide by the decision of the tribunal.
Russell’s statement angered China, which viewed Washington as using its influence to move the case forward and would result in a ruling in favor of the Philippines.
Attempting to push forward the arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, the US side just acts like an “arbitrator outside the tribunal”, according to China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kung.