WASHINGTON — The Philippines, lamenting the poor state of its armed forces, appealed Monday for US and international help in building a "minimum credible defense" amid an escalating territorial dispute with China.

Philippines Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin called for assistance in boosting their country's armed forces in talks in Washington with US counterparts Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta.

Del Rosario lamented how the international news media has described the poor state of Philippines armed forces.

"It sounds terribly painful for the Philippines but more painful is the fact that this is true, and we only have ourselves to blame for it," del Rosario said in a candid assessment as Clinton and Panetta listened across a table.

"For the Philippines to be minimally relied upon as a US regional partner... it therefore behooves us to resort to all possible means to build at the very least a most minimal credible defense posture," del Rosario said.

"On our own, we will do the best we can," the Philippines top diplomat said.

"Developing a minimum credible defense posture may however be hastened mainly through an enhancement of the activities we do together with our singular treaty (with Washington) and through a positive consideration of increased assistance that we seek at this time as well," he said.

"We are concurrently seeking a higher level of assistance from other international partners," he said.

Gazmin alluded to tension with China over islands in the South China Sea as he called for the need to "intensify our mutual trust to uphold maritime security and the freedom of navigation."

"We should be able to work together to build the Philippines minimum credible defense posture, especially in upholding maritime security," Gazmin said.

He also talked of the need to "institutionalize efficient humanitarian assistance and disaster response" as the Philippines armed forces needed to be better prepared to tackle natural disasters.

Clinton, the US secretary of state, said the meetings of four key national security officials of both countries, "allows us to write a new chapter together in our alliance."

The Philippines and China have been embroiled in a dispute over a shoal in the South China Sea, with both nations stationing vessels there for nearly three weeks to assert their sovereignty.

The Philippines says Scarborough Shoal is its territory because it falls well within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, as recognized by international law.

The Philippines has called for arbitration through the United Nations to end the dispute, but China has refused.