A U.S.-China confrontation in Asia is unlikely but Washington is committed to help bolster the military firepower of its allies like the Philippines amid territorial disputes with Beijing, two U.S. senators said Tuesday.
The Philippines has turned to Washington for warships, fighter jets and radar to bolster its anemic military after accusing Chinese ships last year of repeatedly intruding into areas it claims in the South China Sea's disputed Spratly Islands and disrupting oil exploration in its territorial waters.
Vietnam has leveled similar accusations against China, which dismissed the allegations and reiterated its sovereignty in virtually the entire region. The potentially oil- and gas-rich sea territory has long been feared as Asia's potential flashpoint for conflict.
Sen. John McCain, however, said he did not expect any major conflict erupting between the United States and China but reiterated Washington's commitment to maintain its presence in Asia and bolster the military firepower of its allies to counterbalance China's dominance.
"We do not foresee a conflict or confrontation with China," McCain said in a news conference in Manila, where he and three other U.S. senators held talks with Philippine officials on bolstering defense and trade ties.
But he added the best way to guarantee Asia's stability was for Washington to build a strong military presence in the region as well as robust alliances with its allies.
With the U.S. drawing down its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain said America will intensify its deployment of air and naval assets to Asia, increase joint military exercises with allies and bolster trade.
Responding to a question, McCain said the U.S. has no plans to try to re-establish its military bases in the Philippines, which adopted a constitution in 1987 that forbids the permanent basing of foreign troops. He was flown to the U.S. Clark Air Base north of Manila in the early 1970s after years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Clark and other U.S. military facilities were shut down in the early 1990s.
"I don't believe that those days will ever return," McCain said, adding new collaboration by the allies "can mean joint military operations" or provision of American ships and military equipment like a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, which the Philippines recently obtained and became the largest and most modern warship in its dilapidated naval fleet.
Despite its economic difficulties, the U.S. can build a strong presence through robust defense cooperation with its Asian allies and maintain a formidable force in critical areas like the South China Sea, Sen. Joseph Lieberman said.
"We simply cannot allow one nation, in this case China, to exercise disproportionate control over these waterways," Lieberman said.
"We're not gonna let those claims to be settled by force or by bullying," he said. "We're going to make sure to the best of our ability that they're settled as a matter of negotiations, multilateral negotiations and international rule of law."
China wants bilateral negotiations to resolve the longstanding conflicts. It has warned non-claimants led by the United States from intervening.
The battle for ownership of the Spratlys has settled into an uneasy stand-off since the last fighting, involving China and Vietnam, that killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors in 1988. The other claimants are Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.