MANILA (Reuters) - Washington has a treaty obligation to come to the assistance of the Philippines in case of an attack on its territory or its armed forces in the South China Sea, Manila's foreign minister said on Wednesday, disputing criticism of a new security pact.
The United States and the Philippines on Monday signed a new 10-year Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement allowing U.S. forces wider access to local bases and to preposition ships, aircraft, equipment and troops for maritime security.
The new military deal is a testimony to America's "ironclad" commitment to defend its oldest Southeast Asian ally, U.S. President Barack Obama told Filipino and American troops taking part in military exercises next week at an Army base in Manila.
"Under the Mutual Defense Treaty, the U.S. will come to the assistance of the Philippines if our metropolitan territory is attacked or if our armed forces are attacked in the Pacific area," Albert del Rosario said in a statement.
"In 1999, in a diplomatic letter, the U.S. affirmed that the South China Sea is considered as part of the Pacific area."
Del Rosario's statement was meant to dispel concerns and doubts that Washington will not take action if the situation in the disputed areas in the South China Sea escalates into a conflict with China, which has grown assertive in its claims.
Some lawmakers and non-government organizations have criticized the security deal as unconstitutional and said it favors the United States. They said Obama did not make a categorical statement the U.S. will defend the Philippines in its territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
"Through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, the Philippine government has surrendered our sovereignty to free-loading US forces," Renato Reyes of the left-wing Bayan (Nation) group said.
In 2012, China seized control of Scarborough Shoal In the South China Sea, preventing Filipino fishermen from getting near the rocky outcrop.
Last month, the Chinese coast guard blocked two civilian ships from delivering food and water to soldiers deployed aboard a Philippines navy transport in Second Thomas Shoal. They continue to blockade the area.
The Philippines in March lodge a case against China at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague try and settle the festering South China Sea territorial dispute.
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims on the South China Sea, where $5 trillion of ship-borne trade passes every year and is believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.
(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Michael Perry)