Manila, Washington defense talks exude optimism with Edca ruling on backdrop

In Photo: Defense Secretary Voltaire T. Gazmin (from left), Foreign Secretary Albert F. del Rosario and US State Secretary John F. Kerry.

By Rene Acosta

DEFENSE Secretary Voltaire T. Gazmin emphasized the need for the United States and the Philippines to develop a credible defense posture and strengthen their territorial-defense cooperation given the security challenges in the region, including China’s activities in the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea).

“It is timely for the Philippines and the US to focus on building a credible defense posture and enhancing interoperability for territorial defense, maritime security and maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response,” Gazmin said, who, together with Foreign Secretary Albert F. del Rosario, were meeting their American counterparts in the US.

“We look forward to further deepening our strategic partnership, and ensure that we maintain an effective alliance that is responsive to the challenges of the 21st century,” Gazmin added, before the start of the bilateral 2+2 meeting with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and US State Secretary John F. Kerry. Gazmin’s remarks and those of their counterparts were sent to military reporters covering Camp Aguinaldo. Gazmin and del Rosario’s meeting with their US counterparts came on the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) signed in April 2014 with the US that would allow the increased rotational visits of US forces into the country.

The meeting also takes place in the aftermath of China’s more assertive actions in the territory that it disputes with its neighbors, the latest of which was its landings on two occasions of three civilian aircraft in the Fiery Cross Reef.

Vietnam already accused China of threatening safety of civilian flights over the disputed South China Sea by failing to properly inform its aviation authorities of Beijing’s recent test flights to a manmade island also claimed by Hanoi.

Gazmin said the US and the Philippines share common security concern—including territorial and maritime disputes—and working together to address them would even bring peace in the region.

“While we grapple with nontraditional security concerns and natural manmade disasters, traditional security challenges—to include territorial and maritime disputes—remain to be fundamental concerns,” he said.

“Given this strategic context, we should be in a position to address such common concerns, as well as contribute to regional peace and stability,” the defense chief added.

On the other hand, del Rosario expressed the appreciation of the Aquino administration on the continued assistance of the US in developing the capabilities of the Armed Forces and in the overall efforts of the country to continuously beef up its security.

“We appreciate the increase in foreign military financing and other forms of security assistance in support of our defense-modernization efforts,” he said. Del Rosario said the government is looking forward to a stronger and robust defense alliance and cooperation between the two countries through the implementation of the Edca.

Before the start of the meeting, Kerry reiterated the US position that it has “an ironclad commitment to the security of the Philippines.”

The US secretary also welcomed the court’s ruling on the rotation visit of the US forces in the country and their storage of assets and equipment in selected bases around the country.

“We welcome the Philippine Supreme Court’s decision that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement is consistent with the Philippine Constitution. It’s a very important decision. And we look forward to implementing this accord, which will increase the interoperability of our armed forces and contribute to modernization and improve our joint capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies,” Kerry said.

Meanwhile, Carter said the Edca will give the US new opportunities to work with the Philippines, especially on issues of maritime and territorial defense.

He also said the US will continue to sail, fly and operate in the West Philippines Sea. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Le Hai Binh said that although a Chinese Embassy representative did inform the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry about the flights last month, prompting a protest from Hanoi, that did not extend to the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) and threatened the safety of civil aviation.

The notification from the Chinese Embassy “cannot substitute China’s notification to the appropriate air-traffic services units of Vietnam in order to ensure the safety and regularity of flight operations,” the CAAV said in a statement late Tuesday.

China Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei told reporters on Monday that China’s three test flights to the Fiery Cross Reef—one of seven South China Sea features where China had carried out extensive land reclamation—were state aviation activities and had no restrictions under international law.

Hong said Beijing informed Vietnamese aviation authorities last December 28 and Foreign Ministry two days later about them. He said Vietnam had failed to see “the professional, technical and civil nature of China’s inspection and test flights.”

Binh disputed Hong and said that, at the meeting with the Chinese Embassy representative, Vietnam protested and demanded that China cancel the flights.

Binh said the flights violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over the islands, and demanded that China stop any such activities. Vietnam and China both claim the Paracel Islands and the two, along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Taiwan, claim all or parts of the Spratlys, which sit on potentially oil- and gas-rich resources, and occupy one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

China’s recent increasing assertiveness has caused serious concerns among its neighbors and the US, which backs freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea.

(With AP)




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