WASHINGTON — The United States said Thursday it was ready to provide hardware to modernize the military of the Philippines, which vowed to “stand up to aggressive action” amid rising tension at sea with China.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, on a visit to Washington, said the Philippines hoped to lease equipment to upgrade its aged fleet and called for the allies to revamp their relationship in light of the friction with China.
“We are determined and committed to supporting the defense of the Philippines,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a joint news conference when asked about the hardware wish-list from the Philippines.
Clinton said the two nations were working “to determine what are the additional assets that the Philippines needs and how we can best provide those.” She said del Rosario would meet Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Pentagon officials.
Tensions in the strategic and resource-rich South China Sea have escalated in recent weeks, with the Philippines and Vietnam alarmed at what they say are increasingly aggressive actions by Beijing in the disputed waters.
Several Southeast Asian nations have been seeking closer relationships with the United States, which since last year has called loudly for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
“We are concerned that recent incidents in the South China Sea could undermine peace and stability,” Clinton told reporters, urging “all sides to exercise self-restraint.”
Del Rosario, with Clinton at his side, said that the Philippines was a small country but is “prepared to do what is necessary to stand up to any aggressive action in our backyard.”
The Philippines has announced the deployment in disputed waters of its navy flagship, the Rajah Humabon. One of the world’s oldest warships, the Rajah Humabon was a former US Navy frigate that served during World War II.
The Philippines has historically bought second-hand hardware, but del Rosario said that President Benigno Aquino has allocated 11 billion pesos (252 million dollars) to upgrade the navy.
Shortly ahead of his talks with Clinton, del Rosario said that the Philippines was asking the United States for “an operational lease so that we can look at fairly new equipment and be able to get our hands on that quickly.”
“We need to have the resources to be able to stand and defend ourselves and, I think, to the extent that we can do that, we become a stronger ally for you,” del Rosario said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The United States signed a defense treaty with the Philippines in 1951, five years after the archipelago’s independence from US colonial rule. Del Rosario said he believed the treaty — which calls for mutual defense in the event of an attack in “the Pacific area” — covers the South China Sea.
The United States has been providing military aid to the Philippines primarily to fight Islamic militants in the wake the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Del Rosario said that Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf has largely been defeated, estimating that only around 200 guerrillas remained.
“The Philippines’ relative success in counter-insurgency coupled with pressures in the regional environment compel a reorientation of focus and resources,” he said.
“A reset in our relations has therefore become an imperative to allow the alliance to continue to meet domestic goals while contributing to global stability,” he said.
China has said that it will not resort to the use of force in the South China Sea but has also warned the United States to stay out of territorial spats.
I believe some countries now are playing with fire. And I hope the US won’t be burned by this fire,” China’s vice foreign minister Cui Tiankai said.