US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has assured the Philippines that the United States will come to its defence if attacked in the South China Sea.
During meetings in Manila, Mr Blinken met with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr in a bid to bolster the “strong” alliance between the two countries, as China conducts military drills around Taiwan.
“The alliance is strong and I believe can grow even stronger,” Mr Blinken told Mr Marcos at the presidential palace on Saturday.
As part of the talks, Mr Blinken sought to allay concerns about the extent of a mutual defence treaty, amid discussions dominated by simmering US-China tensions over the Taiwan visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Mr Blinken said a 70-year-old defence pact with the Philippines was “iron-clad”.
“An armed attack on Philippines armed forces, public vessels and aircraft will invoke US mutual defence commitments under that treaty,” he told reporters on Saturday.
“The Philippines is an irreplaceable friend, partner and ally to the United States.”
Mr Blinken is the most senior US official to visit the Philippines since Mr Marcos took office on June 30.
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Mr Marcos hailed the “special relationship” between the two countries, after China launched a series of military exercises around Taiwan that the US has condemned.
On Saturday, the third day of the war games, Taiwan accused the Chinese military of simulating an attack on its main island as they deployed fighter jets and warships just 400km north of the Philippines.
The drills came in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which prompted fury in China.
But Mr Marcos said rather than adding to the tensions, Ms Pelosi’s visit merely demonstrated the existing “intensity” of the conflict.
In virtual talks with his Philippines counterpart Enrique Manalo, Mr Blinken said the US was “determined to act responsibly” to avoid a crisis.
“Maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is vital not only for Taiwan but for the Philippines and many other countries,” he told reporters after the meeting.
Mr Manalo told Mr Blinken the Philippines could not afford a “further escalation of tensions in the region” as it battles “significant challenges”, such as reviving its pandemic-hit economy.
“The Philippines continues to look at big powers to help calm the waters and keep the peace,” he said.
Protecting mutual defence treaty
As regional tensions rise, Washington is keen to preserve its security alliance with Manila, which includes the mutual defence treaty and permission for the US military to store defence equipment and supplies on several Philippine bases.
It also allows US troops to access certain military bases in the country.
“We always stand by our partners,” Mr Blinken told reporters. “It’s important to underscore that because of what’s happening north of here in the Taiwan Strait.”
Mr Marcos has indicated he will strike a balance between China and the US, which are vying to have the closest ties with his administration.
Washington-Manila relations rebounded towards the end of the tenure of Mr Marcos’ predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who had threatened to axe a key military agreement with the US.
Mr Blinken arrived in the capital Manila on Friday after attending an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Cambodia.
There, he condemned China’s drills as “a significant escalation”.
Like other ASEAN members, the Philippines does not formally recognise Taiwan and has shown no appetite for backing Taipei against Beijing, its biggest trade partner.
The US has a complex relationship with the Philippines – and the Marcos family.
After Ferdinand Marcos Sr ruled the former US colony for two decades with the support of Washington, which saw him as a Cold War ally, he went into exile in Hawaii in 1986 in the face of mass protests and the nudging of the US.
– with AFP