By David Brunnstrom
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The United States expects to maintain its strong security relationship with the Philippines, including a recent accord on the rotational stationing of U.S. forces, U.S. officials said on Thursday, despite signals from the incoming Philippine president that he will chart a more independent course.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, speaking en route to a security conference in Singapore at which a case over disputed South China Sea territory brought by the previous Philippine government against China will be a key talking point, said Washington took its treaty alliance with the Philippines “very seriously.”
“It’s long standing, it is, we say, ironclad,” he told reporters.
“They have a new government there and we look forward to working with them, talking with them about our alliance, about security affairs in the region.”
Asked about an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) he signed in Manila weeks ago giving the United States rotational access to five bases in the Philippines, Carter replied: “Our plans for EDCA and implementation are on track; we haven’t changed our plans at all.”
On Tuesday, Philippines President-elect Rodrigo Duterte, who is due to take over on June 30, signalled greater independence in dealing with China and broader security issues, when he told reporters future policy would “not be dependent on America.”
“We have this pact with the West, but I want everybody to know that we will be charting a course of our own,” Duterte said, when asked if he would push for bilateral talks with China.
On Wednesday, Duterte’s incoming foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay, told Reuters Manila would honour treaties with the United States, including the EDCA, but it “should not be a lackey of any nation.”
The outgoing Philippines government has been one of Washington’s staunchest supporters in its standoff with China over its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, a vital global trade route.
Washington has been supportive of a case Manila has brought in the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague challenging China’s claims.
Carter is expected to urge regional nations attending the annual Shangri-la Dialogue to rally around the U.S. position that the court’s ruling, which is expected to go in Manila’s favour, must be binding.
Another U.S. defence official, who did not want to be identified, said Washington expected to continue its strong alliance with the Philippines, but added: “We certainly understand the Philippine desire to chart their own course and everything we do with respect to our alliance … is designed to allow the Philippines to chart its own course.”
Asked whether the United States had detected any decrease in desire on the part of the Philippines to take part in joint South China Sea patrols or to commit to more force rotations under the EDCA, the official replied:
“It’s too early to tell. We’ll get together with the government when they come in and I’m sure we will have very thorough discussions about all of this when the time comes.”
“The first tranche of forces has rotated out. And we will be discussing with the Philippines possible future (deployments).”
Duterte has yet to name a defence minister and Carter said he had no meeting planned with the Philippines delegation at the Singapore meeting.
Carter also said he did not plan a separate meeting with the Chinese, but looked forward to seeing members of their delegation over the three-day conference from Friday.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Robert Birsel)