WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Philippines is counting on "unwavering" U.S. help in beefing up its naval capabilities to defend its territories in the South China Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Thursday.
Del Rosario is visiting Washington amid the biggest flare-up in tension in years over competing maritime territorial claims and growing assertiveness by China in pressing its claim to the entire the South China Sea.
Part of the waters believed to be rich in oil and gas are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China has warned the United States to stay out of the dispute and leave it to claimants. The Philippines and its neighbors have called for a multilateral diplomacy based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
"Maritime security is our problem, but it is also your problem," Del Rosario said in a speech to a Washington think tank before his meeting with State Secretary Hillary Clinton.
"We do not expect the U.S. to fight our battles for us, but we count on the U.S.'s strong and unwavering assistance in building the strength and resources of the Philippine military to meet the new challenge," he said.
Manila is seeking a clarification from Washington on its position of how it would respond to a situation in the South China Sea under the two countries' 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
Del Rosario said he did not know how the United States would interpret the treaty, but said that Manila believes references in the pact to the Pacific Ocean "means the area surrounding the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea."
Del Rosario said Manila wanted help in upgrading the Philippine navy to patrol and defend maritime borders as it shifts its security priorities from fighting domestic insurgency.
"We obviously need to refleet quickly, and more thoughtfully and more cost-effectively," he said.
The Philippines, which had long received reconditioned surplus U.S. military equipment, was examining new arrangements such as leases that would offer newer gear delivered more quickly, he said.
The long-standing Philippines-China part of the maritime dispute flared up again after Chinese navy ships and a marine surveillance vessel were seen placing a buoy and posts near a bank in the sea in an area Manila said was well inside the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai on Wednesday told foreign reporters in Beijing that China had not provoked any incidents in the South China Sea and if Washington sought to play a role it should urge restraint on other claimants.
"I believe the individual countries are actually playing with fire and I hope the fire will not be drawn to the United States," said Cui, who will hold talks in Hawaii later this week with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.
(Reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by Eric Walsh)