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U.S. Senators call for more joint military exercises with PH

MANILA — The United States wants to have more joint military exercises with the Philippines and other Asian countries.

U.S. Senate Armed Forces Committee Ranking Member Sen. John McCain (Arizona) conveyed this message to Philippine officials lead by President Benigno Aquino III, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.

The other senators were chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Joseph Lieberman (Connecticut), Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island), and Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire).

The lawmakers discussed U.S. defense and development assistance, West Philippine Sea (WPS) and China, the Mindanao Peace Process, ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Myanmar, climate change and the renewed engagement of the U.S. in the Asia Pacific.

Del Rosario noted that senators have passed U.S. Senate Resolution 217, which called for a peaceful and multilateral resolution to maritime territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.

Del Rosario thanked McCain for his position about the need to maintain freedom of navigation in the WPS and for stressing the need for U.S. support in defense of the Philippines as America’s treaty ally.

McCain, who expressed “strong affinity” for the Philippines and noted the “long and friendly personal relationship” between the two countries, conveyed that the best way to avoid confrontation with China is to maintain freedom of navigation.

Del Rosario also requested the U.S.’ assistance on the Philippine Government’s request for a third Weather High Endurance Cutter (WHEC), which would enable the Philippines to attain minimum credible defense posture and to enhance maritime domain awareness.

McCain replied that they “will try to get a waiver on the cutter” as he sees that it would be “unreasonable not to give it” to the Philippines. He also said that they would do whatever they could to help the Philippines improve its maritime security.

As chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Sen. Lieberman conveyed his gratitude for the Philippines’ cooperation in counterterrorism and requested updates on the Mindanao Peace Process.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis provided updates on the Government of the Philippines-Moro Islamic Liberation Front (GRP-MILF) Peace Process, and expressed optimism that a peace agreement will be signed between the two panels before the end of the Aquino administration.

In a press conference at the U.S. embassy in Manila, McCain said the Philippines would be a key player in this change as the US considers it “important” and a “leader” in the region, noting the 60th anniversary of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty this year.

“China was a subject of the discussion…While we see no confrontation with China, we emphasize that we will do what we need to do to protect freedom of navigation in the region…We will work with the ASEAN nations to maintain peace and stability here.”

McCain said a “strong military presence” of allied nations in the region will make China “achieve its goals peacefully.”

There must be a “strong alliance” of ASEAN nations as a foil to China’s growing military might, McCain said. “We will not let the South China Sea dispute be settled by force or bullying, but by the ability to negotiate multilaterally and following the international rule of law,” Lieberman said.

Last week, members of the US House of Representatives visited the Philippines, led by US House Committee on Appropriations chairman Representative Harold Rogers, together with Representatives Norman D. Dicks, Ander Crenshaw, Rodney Alexander, Steven C. LaTourette, Tom Cole, and Michael K. Simpson.