- Defense Secretay Carter says China's actions causing anxiety
- U.S. to lift troop presence under expanded defense agreement
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said joint patrols with the Philippines have started in the South China Sea, as the country boosts its military presence in the Southeast Asian nation ahead of a key court ruling on China’s claims to the waters.
The allies, who are seeking to thwart China’s assertiveness in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, began the sea patrols last month, Carter said Thursday in a briefing at the presidential palace in Manila.
“These patrols will continue to help build our inter-operability and improve the Philippine Navy, even as these patrols contribute to the safety and security of the region’s waters,” he said.
China’s claims to more than four-fifths of the South China Sea have sparked tensions with other Southeast Asian nations including Vietnam. The U.S., which is not a claimant, contends that the militarization of the islands may hinder navigation in waters that carry more than $5 trillion of seaborne trade a year.
The beefed up U.S. actions come ahead of the Philippine presidential election in May. Current president Benigno Aquino has been a critic of China but the candidates to replace him could potentially take a less adversarial approach to one of the country’s major trading partners.
“China’s actions in particular are causing anxiety and raising regional tensions,” Carter said. “Countries across the Asia-Pacific are voicing concern with China’s land reclamation, which stands out in size and scope, as well as its militarization in the South China Sea.”
The joint patrols would lead to militarization of the waters and broader U.S.-Philippine military cooperation goes against peace and stability in the region, China’s defense ministry said in a statement on its website. China’s military will “pay close attention” to the situation to “resolutely defend” the nation’s sovereignty and maritime interests, it said.
The U.S. has moved to expand its defense pact with the Philippines. About 200 U.S. airmen who joined war games that started on April 4 will stay behind to continue joint training, Carter said. Some U.S. pilots will conduct flight operations in the area, including in the South China Sea, and lay the foundations for joint air patrols, he said.
U.S. and Philippine defense officials are in talks to expand local bases that can be used for joint training on top of the five sites already agreed, Carter said.
"There is no question that there is concern in the region about China’s behavior and China’s self-isolating behavior,” he said. “But the cause of that is Chinese behavior, not America."
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said ties with the U.S. have evolved to a level that allows his country to maintain peace and stability beyond its borders. The U.S. presence “will deter uncalled for actions by the Chinese,” Gazmin said.
The Philippines has sought international arbitration at the Hague to help resolve the South China Sea dispute, with a ruling expected within months. Carter said the matter should be settled peacefully. “We don’t take sides," he said. "We’re on the side of a peaceful resolution and lawful disposition” of the case.