‘We’ll have your back in SCS’

Pentagon chief tells PBBM amid new PH-US defense guidelines

Washington—The United States “will always have the Philippines’ back” in the South China Sea or elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin assured President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila).

“So make no mistake Mr. President, we will always have your back in the South China Sea or elsewhere in the region,” Austin said to Mr. Marcos, who met with the top American defense officials at The Pentagon, the US Defense Department’s headquarters.

The US and the Philippines are also moving toward real-time sharing of military information and greater coordination to guard against any coercive behavior by China in the South China Sea and around Taiwan, according to a fact sheet released by the Pentagon.

LONG-STANDING ALLIES. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is welcomed by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III at the Pentagon late Wednesday evening (Manila time). The Philippine leader is accorded full military honors, including a 21-gun salute. Mr. Marcos is joined by Speaker Martin Romualdez and Defense OIC Carlito Galvez Jr. in his meeting with Austin.

The fact sheet covered the US-Philippine defense cooperation guidelines Wednesday after US President Joe Biden and Mr. Marcos adopted them following their meeting at the White House this week.

In reply to Austin, President Marcos said that the background “of the strengthening relationship between our two countries, strengthening what is already has begun, is a longstanding and very robust relationship that we have developed over the many years.”

Mr. Marcos also looked forward to “a very bright future between the Philippines and the United States.”

“And so, Mr. Secretary, I look forward… to a future that is founded on the long experience, and as you say, friendship and familial relationship because the people-to-people exchanges between our two countries have been ongoing at this very level,” he said.

Mr. Marcos is in the US for a four-days official working visit in which he met his American counterpart and discussed national and regional matters.

The rare visit by a foreign leader to the US Department of Defense indicates the urgency and resolve of both sides to increase defense cooperation.

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder stressed in a news briefing Tuesday that Washington and Manila are “standing at a transformational moment,” adding that Austin and Mr. Marcos discussed “a wide range of security topics” including expansion of operational cooperation in the South China Sea.

According to the fact sheet, the guidelines are intended to “foster a common understanding of roles, missions, and capabilities within the framework of the alliance to face regional and global security challenges.”

Washington and Manila agreed to conclude by the end of 2023 an intel-sharing framework, known as a General Security of Military Information Agreement, when they held a two-plus-two meeting of foreign affairs and defense leaders – Austin and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken with Philippines Defense OIC Carlito Galvez and Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo — in April.

The GSOMIA is meant to exchange sophisticated military intelligence in a timely manner, and the two sides are expected to finalize details of the agreement in working-level talks.

In the South China Sea, Chinese Coast Guard ships have continued aggressive maneuvers in the Spratly Islands around Ayungin Shoal, also known as Second Thomas Shoal, where both Beijing and Manila claim sovereignty.

A better understanding of the locations and movements of Chinese ships gleaned through real-time intelligence sharing would help the Philippines safely execute resupply missions to the naval ship BRP Sierra Madre, which was deliberately grounded on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to reinforce Manila’s territorial claims.

The US and the Philippines will work to enhance maritime and security awareness in the South China Sea by conducting “combined maritime activities” such as joint patrols.

A senior US defense official told Nikkei Asia in a report that “we think preserving their rights to operate within an EEZ [exclusive economic zone] in accordance with international laws is something that’s really important.”

Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, also accused Beijing of repeated interdictions of Philippine ships operating in Manila’s EEZ during a recent interview with Nikkei.

Paparo issued warnings to China that US Navy ships “stand ready” to support the Philippine operations with an eye on potential collisions between Beijing and Manila.

The defense guidelines direct the US and Philippine militaries to increase interoperability across land, sea, air, space, and the cyber domain. They will intensify efforts to tackle gray zone operations and irregular warfare.

China is consolidating effective control over the South China Sea by deploying militia groups and civilian ships so as not to go beyond the threshold of military confrontation.

President Marcos was given arrival honors by the United States Armed Forces as he met with the US military top brass and the Philippine delegation.

Austin reminded the President of the “enduring strength” of the PH-US alliance and the shared commitment of the two countries.

“For decades, the Philippines has been an indispensable friend and ally to the United States,” he said.

Austin also acknowledged the recent “Balikatan” exercises of the American and Filipino troops, the largest-ever edition of the annual military drills, which included thousands of soldiers from the US, the Philippines, and their allies.

“The recently concluded largest and most complex iteration ever of Exercise Balikatan included more than 17,000 troops in the Philippines, the United States, and Australia, training side-by-side across air, land, sea, and for the first time, cyberspace,” the US Defense chief said to President Marcos.

Austin also reiterated the commitment made by Mr. Biden to Mr. Marcos for the defense of the Philippines.

“President Biden has made clear our commitment to the defense of the Philippines is ironclad,” the secretary said.

“Our Mutual Defense Treaty applies to armed attacks on our armed forces, coast guard vessels, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including anywhere in the South China Sea,” he added.

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