Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday the U.S. is committed to the defense of the Philippines and providing it with affordable weaponry amid mounting tensions in the South China Sea.
Clinton would not comment specifically on whether the U.S. would provide military assistance in the event of an attack on Philippine forces by China near the disputed Spratly islands, but said that the U.S. would honor its mutual defense treaty with its Asian ally.
"I don't want to discuss hypothetical events but I want to underscore our commitment to the defense of the Philippines," Clinton told a news conference after meeting with Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who said China had made nine intrusions into Philippine-claimed waters since Feb. 25.
Vietnam has also traded diplomatic barbs with China over two recent incidents in the South China Sea, enflaming long-running territorial disputes in potentially resource-rich waters where remote islands are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
"We are troubled by recent incidents in the South China Sea that have increased tension and raised concerns about peace and security in the region," Clinton said.
She said ultimately the territorial disputes had to be resolved by the claimants, but the U.S. was willing to support a collaborative, diplomatic process by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has attempted to frame a code of conduct with China.
China has urged the United States not to get involved, and says the disputes should be resolved through bilateral negotiations. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai this week warned the U.S. risks getting drawn into a conflict should tensions in the region escalate further.
Clinton said senior U.S. and Chinese officials would discuss the issue in talks in Hawaii over the weekend.
Seeking to counter China's rise and rapid military buildup, U.S. has stepped up its engagement with Southeast Asian nations in the past two years, including with treaty allies such as the Philippines, with whom the U.S. is to hold naval training exercises starting June 28.
Clinton said the U.S. would honor its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines that calls on each country to help defend the other against an external attack by an aggressor in their territories or in the Pacific region. She said the U.S. was also committed to providing the Philippines affordable military equipment to defend itself.
The Philippines, whose poorly equipped forces are no match for China's powerful military, has so far resorted to diplomatic protests to China's alleged intrusions. Del Rosario said China's responses to its protests had been "unacceptable" and he was concerned about the direction events could be heading.
"Although we are a small country, we are prepared to do what is necessary to stand up to any aggressive action in our backyard," he said.
In 1988, clashes over the Spratlys involving China and Vietnam killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors.