Obama stresses commitment to maritime security

2015-11-17 17:42
US President Barack Obama is greeted by Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. (Bullit Marquez, AP)

US President Barack Obama is greeted by Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. (Bullit Marquez, AP)

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Manila - US President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced $250m in maritime security assistance for South-East Asian allies ahead of an international economic summit overshadowed by disputes in the South China Sea.

Obama spoke aboard the Philippine Navy's flagship, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, docked off Manila Bay, just across from the main venue of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) leaders' summit.

"Our visit here underscores our shared commitment to the security of waters of this region and freedom of navigation," he said.

The annual meeting is being held in Manila amid an escalating row between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely as its sovereign territory.

As part of the aid, to be given over the next two years, the United States would "transfer two additional ships to the Philippine Navy, a research vessel to help map its territorial waters and another US coast guard cutter", Obama said.

"This is part of our larger plan to in crease maritime security assistance to our allies and partners across the region," he added.

The US earlier transferred two Hamilton-class cutters to the Philippine Navy - the Gregorio del Pilar and the BRP Ramon Alcaraz - which are now the country's main warships patrolling its waters.

"Anything that enhances relations among nations and fulfills mutual security needs is always helpful," said Philippine military spokesperson Colonel Restituto Padilla.

Hours before Obama's visit to the Gregorio del Pilar, dozens of protesters tried to march towards the US Embassy in Manila, but were blocked by police officers.

The demonstrators burned a replica of the US flag and chanted anti-US slogans as they tried to push their way through the rows of policemen, but failed to break the security barrier.

No arrests were made. Activists were preparing for a bigger rally on Wednesday when leaders were scheduled to open the summit with a gala dinner.

The US military has made two high-profile sail-bys close to Chinese-claimed reefs in the disputed waters since last month, arguing that it was upholding freedom of navigation.

Obama was expected to raise the issue at the Apec summit, but Beijing, which has been rapidly developing a number of islands and reefs in the sea, has said that is does not want to discuss the territorial dispute during the meeting.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who arrived just minutes after Obama, was in the Philippines for the first time since Manila filed an arbitration case challenging Beijing's claims at the United Nations.

The Philippines agreed not to raise the issue at the summit, but stressed it could not stop other leaders from discussing it.

"We promised we will be a good host," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said after confirming that there had been no discussions on the territory topic in the meetings of trade and foreign ministers held ahead of the leaders' summit.

Aside from the Philippines and China, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia also claim parts of the South China Sea, a key shipping lane that is believed to be rich in mineral and marine resources.

The leaders at the summit were also expected to discuss counter-terrorism strategy in the wake of the attacks in Paris on Friday.

The attacks were a reminder that terrorism "is a serious challenge to our shared values", said Japanese Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson Koichi Mizushima.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe, scheduled to arrive on Wednesday, is expected to hold a bilateral meeting with Philippine President Benigno Aquino on the sidelines of the Apec summit, to discuss the South China Sea dispute.

Japan and the Philippines have begun negotiations to allow Tokyo to provide Manila with used military equipment to help boost its defence capabilities.

Read more on:    barack obama  |  philippines  |  us  |  military

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