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Carter visits warship in disputed waters

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he would visit a warship close to flashpoint waters of the South China Sea  on Friday, as Beijing reacted defiantly to an American military build-up in the area.

“Later today, I will visit the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, sailing in the South China Sea, after some of its sailors and Marines participated with you in Balikatan,” Carter said in Manila, referring to annual war games with the Philippines that ended  Friday.

Carter’s trip to the warship is the latest move by the United States to show it is committed to maintaining security in the hotly contested waters, where China has built artificial islands on islets and reefs close to the Philippines.

China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, even waters close to its Southeast Asian neighbors, and has in recent years built the islands in an effort to assert what it insists are its sovereign rights.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to parts of the sea, which is home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and is believed to sit atop vast oil reserves.

China has constructed the islands on reefs in the Spratlys archipelago, which are close to the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as airstrips capable of accommodating military aircraft.

China in 2012 also took control of a rich fishing shoal just 220 kilometers from the main Filipino landmass. The shoal is 650 kilometers from China’s nearest major landmass.

Carter announced  on Thursday  that the US had launched joint naval patrols with the Philippines in the South China Sea, as he spoke of growing concern about China’s “land reclamation” and “militarization” of the region.

He also said the US would deploy hundreds of troops, as well as five warplanes, to the Philippines.

China reacted defiantly to the announcement, with its defense ministry warning the military would protect the nation’s territory.

“US-Philippine joint patrols in the South China Sea promote regional militarization and undermine regional peace and stability,” said a Chinese defense ministry statement released late  Thursday.

“The Chinese military will pay very close attention to related developments, and firmly safeguard China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.”

On Friday, Carter emphasized the US would back up the Philippines and other allies in the region.

“At a time of change in this dynamic region, and democratic transitions in the Philippines and the United States, we will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder,” Carter said at the closing ceremony for the war games, which involved about 9,000 soldiers.

“We will continue to stand up for our safety and freedoms, for those of our friends and allies, and for the values, principles, and rules-based order that has benefited so many for so long.”

Carter also highlighted the presence of soldiers from Australia and Japan for the Balikatan war games this year, emphasizing that the two key regional players had also expressed concerns over China’s expansion in the South China Sea.

“I am pleased to see so many nations interested in working together to promote stability and security in the Asia-Pacific,” he said.

Philippine and American officials would not disclose exactly where the Stennis was sailing  on Friday.

However, Carter was due to make only a short flight to the carrier from a military base in Palawan, which is the closest landmass to the Spratlys.

A US official traveling with Carter said the Stennis was in Philippine-claimed waters.

The 275 American troops and nine aircraft that Carter said would stay in the Philippines following the Balikatan war games are the first major deployments under a bilateral defense pact finalized in January.

The pact allows US forces to rotate soldiers and military hardware through the Philippines, an important part of American efforts to expand its military presence throughout the Asia-Pacific.

US forces will initially have access to five Filipino military bases, including two close to the hotspot areas of the South China Sea.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin  on Thursday  said he hoped the US efforts would “deter uncalled-for action by the Chinese.”

Malacañang on Friday defended the holding of joint patrols with the United States in the disputed South China Sea and rejected the statement of China’s defense ministry that such actions reflect a “Cold War mentality.”

“The two countries have been helping each other, long before disputes on maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea came to the surface,” said Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma, Jr., during a press briefing in Malacañang.

The Philippines refers to parts of the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea.

Coloma cited the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US in the 1950s, and the Visiting Forces Agreement in 1999 and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries finalized in January.

Under the Edca, the US will be allowed to build structures, store as well as pre-position weapons, defense supplies and materiel, station troops, civilian personnel and defense contractors, transit and station vehicles, vessels, and aircraft for a period of 10 years.

Coloma also said the Balikatan military exercises were not triggered by any “third party.”

But Carter’s remarks were clearly aimed at China when he referred to the need for “rules and principles like the peaceful resolution of disputes, countries being able to make their own security and economic choices free from coercion and intimidation, and freedom of navigation and over-flight” during a speech marking the end of this year’s military exercises.

Carter reiterated the US government’s “ironclad” support for its allies in the Southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific that are being threatened by aggressive powers. –with AFP

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