US donates four patrol vessels and three aircraft to Philippines

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE UNITED STATES will donate at least four patrol vessels and three C-130H aircraft to the Philippines, the White House said on Monday, amid China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

The two Island-class and Patrol-class vessels would boost the capability of the Philippine Armed Forces, the office of US President Joseph R. Biden said in a statement posted on the White House website.

The transfer would undergo “applicable congressional notification requirements,” it said.

The US had given the Philippines two Cyclone-class coastal patrol vessels last month and were en route to Manila, it added.

“These transfers will support the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ modernization program by enhancing its maritime and tactical lift capabilities,” the White House said.

“Let us hope that these most recent donations of coastal patrol vessels and cargo aircraft are not the usual discarded run-down supplies of the US military establishment,” Temario C. Rivera, a retired professor of international politics at the University of the Philippines, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

These resources should be under the full operational control of the Philippine government and not used simply to support American strategic security interests in the region, he added.

“Finally, this should not detract us from looking for peaceful political solutions to the conflict in the West Philippine Sea,” he added, referring to parts of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

“An immediate focus of such diplomacy is to work out an unimpeded access by our fisherfolk to our maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea.”

The donation was expected since the Philippine defense sector “has historically been aligned with the US,” Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a policy analyst, said.

“The assistance we are receiving seems substantial, but this shouldn’t be seen as a big leap necessarily,” he said in a Messenger chat. “We shouldn’t use this alliance as a reason not to boost our defense capabilities through other means such as forging similar alliances with other states.”

Mr. Yusingco said the Philippines should boost its defense capabilities through its own efforts.

“We mustn’t simply rely on the US to help us when the need arises,” he said. “This is easier said than done of course. But this is a challenge that the president and Congress must face.”

Boosting “our national defense capabilities without the aid of external forces demands the cooperation of both branches of government.”

“While we can find some comfort with our alliance with the US, this cannot be our long-term defense policy,” he added. “Moving forward we need to have a robust defense capability of our own. We must not allow our political leaders to forget this goal.”

Mr. Biden and President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. met at the White House on Monday, during which the US leader reaffirmed his country’s “ironclad alliance commitments to the Philippines.”

The two leaders agreed to adopt bilateral defense guidelines that would institutionalize key bilateral priorities, mechanisms and processes “to deepen alliance cooperation and interoperability across land, sea, air, space and cyber-space,” the White House said. 

“The guidelines support the continued modernization of the alliance and ongoing efforts to adapt alliance coordination to respond to the evolving security environment,” it added.

Under the guidelines, Washington and Manila will advance efforts to deepen interoperability, particularly through enhanced bilateral planning, information-sharing, accelerated defense capability development and collaboration on emerging security challenges.

The two countries also eye establishing separate “trilateral modes of cooperation” with Japan and Australia, the Philippines and US said in a separate joint statement posted on the White House website.

“The leaders welcome cooperation with partners that share the US and the Philippines’ commitment to international law and mutual respect,” Mr. Biden and Mr. Marcos said in the statement, hours after their meeting.

“In that spirit, they reaffirm their strong support for ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) centrality and the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific.”

Manila and Washington also welcomed efforts by a quadrilateral alliance among the US, Australia, India and Japan “to support a peaceful and stable, rules-based region with ASEAN at the center.”

China, an important Philippine trade partner, has viewed the quad as a US attempt to counter its influence in the region. Wang Yi, China’s Foreign minister, has called the US-led informal grouping an “Indo-Pacific NATO.”

The leaders said they have an “unwavering commitment” to freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, which is being claimed by China almost in its entirety.

Mr. Marcos and Mr. Biden also reiterated the importance of respecting the sovereign rights of states within their exclusive economic zones consistent with international law, citing a 2016 arbitral ruling that voided China’s sweeping claims over the waterway.

“The leaders support the right and ability of Filipino fisherfolk to pursue their traditional livelihoods.”

The two leaders also affirmed the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait “as an indispensable element of global security and prosperity.”

“The leaders convey support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, noting that the conflict has adversely affected food and energy security in the Indo-Pacific,” according to the joint statement.

Mr. Biden reiterated that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including the South China Sea, would invoke US mutual defense commitments under the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.

In February, Mr. Marcos announced the expansion of the Philippines’ 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US, giving Washington access to four more military bases on top of the five existing sites.

The EDCA expansion would boost Philippine security and support the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ modernization goals, while driving US investments to local communities across the Philippines “and improving our shared ability to rapidly deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” according to the joint statement.

China has criticized the EDCA expansion, accusing Washington of endangering regional peace and stability. EDCA banks on the 1999 visiting forces agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty.

In September 1991, Filipino senators voted to end a military base treaty that ended a century of US military presence in the Philippines.