US Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Philippines yesterday, seeking to modernize economic and political ties with one of the US’ oldest allies in Southeast Asia.
Kerry’s two-day visit took him to the capital, Manila, for talks with government officials and the business community.
As he did on his previous stop in Vietnam, Kerry planned to discuss maritime security with authorities in the Philippines, which also has territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“They will certainly discuss the specific issues pertaining to the South China Sea,” a senior US department of state official said.
These issues range from helping the Philippines to strengthen its capacity for tasks such as maritime domain awareness, or finding out who is in its territorial waters and why, to legal issues over the country’s challenge to China’s claim on what is known as the nine-dash line, the official added.
“In the near term, there’s a need for practical measures to prevent incidents or manage them if they occur in a way that avoids escalation,” the official said.
Regional tension with China has escalated over the territorial claims in the South China Sea. Separately, China and Japan are embroiled in a dispute over islands in the East China Sea.
The US has said it is not taking sides in any of the disputes, but in recent weeks has moved to defend its allies in the region against new moves by Beijing to control regional waters.
Today, Kerry is set to travel to Tacloban in the central Philippines, the epicenter of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which decimated towns and villages on Nov. 8. The storm has killed more than 6,000 people and displaced 4 million.
US marines and humanitarian groups have joined a multimillion-dollar relief effort to deliver aid to the survivors.
While the US has said it does not intend to open new military or naval bases in the region, Kerry will discuss ways that the US can help respond quicker during disasters in the region, such as the typhoon.
The heightened tension with China has raised concerns that a minor incident in the disputed sea could quickly escalate. US and Chinese warships narrowly avoided a collision in the South China Sea last week, the US Pacific Fleet said in a statement on Friday.
In Hanoi on Monday, Kerry pledged US$32.5 million in new assistance to strengthen the capacity of Southeast Asian nation’s to patrol the seas.
Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty over a vast stretch of the South China Sea has set it directly against Vietnam and the Philippines — the two countries Kerry is visiting — while Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia also lay claim to parts of the sea, making it one of Asia’s biggest potential trouble spots.
On Monday, Kerry warned China to refrain from unilateral actions in the region and particularly over the South China Sea, urging countries to resolve their differences peacefully.
Kerry will also update Philippine government officials on talks between the US and 11 other nations in the Pacific Rim on reaching a trade agreement.
His visit to Southeast Asia comes as the US strives for a trade deal with 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is the centerpiece of US efforts to refocus attention on the fast-growing region.