(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) With a standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships under way in a disputed corner of the South China Sea, senior leaders from the United States and the Philippines have reaffirmed their longstanding commitment to mutual defence.
"We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claim," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after the meeting on Monday in Washington. "And we will remain in close contact with our ally, the Philippines."
Clinton and the US defence secretary, Leon E. Panetta, met with their Philippine counterparts, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. They discussed broadening their military alliance as well as expanding economic and cultural ties, though no specific new initiatives were announced.
The meeting took place as the standoff in the South China Sea entered its fourth week. Since April 8, maritime vessels from China and the Philippines have been stationed at Scarborough Shoal, a disputed string of rock outcroppings about 220 kilometres, or 135 miles, west of Luzon Island in the northern Philippines. Both countries claim the area and have demanded that the other leave.
Diplomatic negotiations are under way to resolve the standoff at the shoal, and both sides say they are trying to calm the situation. Still, belligerent rhetoric has continued in both Manila and Beijing.
The Philippine government has accused China of "bullying" its vessels in the disputed area by making aggressive maneuvers, and lawmakers in Manila have called on the country to stand its ground.
Late last week, a Chinese general wrote in an online commentary that his government should be open to taking military action. At the meeting in Washington, del Rosario said his country was seeking the help of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to resolve the standoff. The association has been largely silent on the issue. The Philippines is also seeking UN mediation in the dispute, but China opposes that option.
The treaty obligates the two nations to defend each another in the case of attack, although it is not clear how that might be applied in a disputed area.
Discussions of broader military cooperation have been under way since last year, when the administration of President Barack Obama announced a strategic "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region. In November, Clinton visited Manila and proclaimed continued US military support from the deck of a warship.
The meeting Monday was the highest-level talks between the two countries since those developments.
Any expansion of the US military presence in the Philippines, a former US colony, would be controversial. The Philippine government forced the United States to close its military bases in the country in 1992, and any suggestion that the return of permanent US facilities is being considered remains highly sensitive.