WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States on Tuesday welcomed a court ruling on the constitutionality of a defense pact with the Philippines, saying it would allow the allies to strengthen their maritime cooperation amid tensions with China in the disputed South China Sea.
The Philippines accused China of using flashing lights and flares to challenge Philippine military flights over the contested Spratly Islands and said it wanted to see more U.S. operations to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.
The top diplomats and defense officials of the U.S. and the Philippines met at the State Department Tuesday, hours after the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that the enhanced defense cooperation agreement, signed by the two governments in 2014, is constitutional. The pact will allows American forces, warships and planes to temporarily base in local military camps.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter described the Philippines as a critical ally as the U.S. looks to boost its presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
He said the two sides were discussing how to use the defense pact "to strengthen our maritime security capabilities and our role in keeping a peaceful region, a region without divisions, without tensions, and a region where everyone has freedom to carry out their affairs, including commerce."
Speaking to reporters after the talks, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said they discussed locations where the Philippines can provide access to U.S. forces for "mutual benefit."
The Philippines has increasingly testy relations with China over their territorial dispute in the South China Sea, where six Asian governments are vying for control of small islands and shoals in seas that is a thoroughfare for about one-third of world trade. The U.S. is looking to support the ill-equipped Philippine military and counter assertive Chinese action.
The Philippines has protested to China over recent test landings by aircrafts on one of several artificial islands Beijing has built in the Spratlys. Del Rosario said that China's "provocative" challenges to Philippine military flights amounted to China establishing a de facto air defense identification zone, as it did over the East China Sea.
He said the Philippines was looking at the possibility of joint activities with the U.S. in the South China Sea, but stopped short of saying they were considering joint patrols. In October a U.S. Navy warship sailed within the supposed 12-nautical-mile (22-kilometer) territorial limit of Subi Reef, another of the features built up by China.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. has an "ironclad commitment" to the security of the Philippines, and that they shared a commitment to democracy and human rights.
Nearly a century of U.S. military presence in the Philippines ended in 1992 when Americans shut their bases, including the largest military facilities outside the U.S. mainland, after Filipino senators voted a year earlier not to renew the lease on the bases amid a tide of nationalism. But the Philippines territorial dispute has prompted Manila to reach out to Washington.