March 22, 2023
MANILA — Acting Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have agreed to review the full range of maritime cooperation between their countries in the 2 + 2 meeting in Washington in April, the Pentagon said in a statement.
It will be the first high-level meeting in seven years between top Philippine and US defense officials and diplomats after the Duterte administration shifted the country’s foreign policy away from the United States and pursued close ties with China instead.
Galvez and Austin spoke on the phone several hours after Monday’s groundbreaking ceremony for a $24 million runway rehabilitation project at Basa Air Base. They also discussed plans to conduct joint maritime activities in the South China Sea and Washington’s support for oil spill response operations in Oriental Mindoro.
Austin “noted with particular concern” China’s swarming of more than 40 vessels, including a Navy ship of the People’s Liberation Army, around Pag-asa (Thitu) Island earlier this month, the Pentagon said.
‘Sometime in April’
Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Romualdez confirmed in a Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines forum on Monday that they were finalizing the top-level meetings set “sometime in the middle of April.”
“In those meetings, we expect to have a very strong indication of how we will proceed with all these agreements and all of these things that have happened in the past couple of months,” he said.
Last month, President Marcos granted American troops access to four more military camps in the country, on top of the five existing locations under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Troops from both sides are also set to hold their largest ever military exercise next month with 17,000 participants.
A US aircraft carrier, the USS America (LHA6), is currently in Manila for some “rest and relaxation time.” The ship arrived in the country on March 19. During a media tour of the ship on Tuesday, its commanding officer, Capt. Shockey Snyder, told reporters that their visit was proof of the thriving security alliance between the Philippines and United States.
Asked if they would take part in the planned joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea amid China’s growing presence in the area, Snyder replied: “If America was tasked to conduct any type of patrol anywhere in the world, then we would be ready to carry out that task or any assignments.”
The USS America, which is set to leave on March 23, is a forward-deployed warship based in Sasebo, Japan. It is part of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet whose main objective is to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” by providing military and humanitarian support to ally countries during crises.
According to Snyder, their four-day travel from Japan to the Philippines was through the Luzon strait and “down the coast to the South China Sea” where the Philippine Coast Guard had reported more than 30 Chinese maritime militia vessels on Pag-asa island and Sabina Shoal, within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
“We saw a lot of vessels; there are Chinese vessels operating in the South China Sea. All of our interactions with any ship we came across were all safe and professional.” Snyder said.