The US will “help” the Philippines in the event of China occupying disputed islands in the South China Sea, the US chief of naval operations said late on Thursday.
Admiral Jonathan Greenert also said that the US would honor its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines amid a seething territorial conflict with China over the resource-rich waters.
“Of course we would help you. I don’t know what that help would be, specifically. I mean we have an obligation because we have a treaty,” he told students at a state defense college during a visit to Manila.
His remarks — one of the strongest US declarations of support for the Philippines — come as concerns rise that China will attempt to forcefully assert its claim to almost all of the South China Sea.
China’s claim conflicts with that of the Philippines, which has a 1951 treaty with the US that officials say bind the two partners to defend each other in case of external attack.
The US has not taken a stand on the conflicting territorial claims over the South China Sea, which also involve Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
However, Greenert said that he wanted to send a “clear signal ... that aggressive behavior outside of international norms is contrary to good order.”
“You may have seen some statements coming from our policymakers exactly in that direction. You will see more of that from us,” he added.
He also said that the US Navy would increase its presence in the Western Pacific region from the present level of about 50 ships to 60 ships by 2020.
Greenert also praised the Philippines’ move to ask a UN tribunal to strike down China’s claims to most of the South China Sea, saying it was “a terrific idea.”