President Aquino greets Admiral Samuel Locklear, US Pacific Command chief, at Malacañang yesterday. Locklear is in the country for a three-day visit to reaffirm the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty. WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, JULY 18, 2012 (PHILSTAR) By Pia Lee Brago, Aurea Calica and Alexis Romero - The commander of the United States forces in the Pacific reaffirmed yesterday his country’s commitment to help the Philippines develop “minimum credible defense.”

Admiral Samuel Locklear III, chief of the US Pacific Command based in Honolulu, Hawaii, relayed the message to President Aquino during a meeting at Malacañang. Locklear ends his visit today.

Secretary Ricky Carandang, head of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office, said Locklear “reaffirmed the long-standing partnership between the US and the Philippines.”

Aquino and Locklear discussed the West Philippine Sea issue in “broad strokes” with no specific details given, Carandang said.

Locklear also met with Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.

The Philippines, which has a mutual defense treaty with the US, has been seeking greater support from its main defense ally after a face-off with China over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea in April.

Locklear also met with defense officials yesterday to discuss “domain awareness” amid a changing security climate, according to the US Department of Defense website.

“This visit further strengthens our bond and shared history, especially in the light of current regional developments in the Asia-Pacific, and other areas of engagement between our two militaries,” Armed Forces chief Gen. Jessie Dellosa said.

“This visit is a gesture of sincerity in upholding the mutual trust and respect between the Philippines and the United States,” he added.

He stressed the territorial dispute with China had nothing to do with the visit.

“This is just a reaffirmation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the US’s long-enduring partnership, security ties and cooperation,” said AFP spokesman Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr.

Locklear’s visit came on the heels of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for China to accept a code of conduct for resolving territorial disputes in the resource-rich West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

“So what we are looking for is to try to provide the Philippines assistance that builds the interoperability of our defense forces over time,” the website quoted Locklear as saying.

He also warned that a possible “miscalculation” in the dispute could threaten regional stability and reiterated that the US and Philippine militaries needed to learn to work together better.

“I’m looking forward to giving the message to the Filipino military and to the leaders there that the United States is a very reliable ally. We want the Filipinos to be a reliable ally to us as well,” he was quoted as saying.

The standoff in Panatag began in April when Chinese maritime vessels came to the rescue of Chinese fishermen who were about to be arrested by Philippine Navy personnel for poaching. The poachers on eight fishing boats eventually slipped out of Panatag Shoal with their illegal harvest of endangered corals, live sharks and giant clams.

China has since claimed the shoal as part of its territory, citing “historical records” and ancient maps.

The shoal is only 124 nautical miles from Zambales coast and well within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Del Rosario had accused China of “duplicity” and “intimidation” during the recent conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia.

The Philippines had also voiced its disappointment over the failure of the regional bloc to take a common stand on China’s territorial claims.

Clinton on Wednesday urged ASEAN “to clearly outline its position on the Scarborough Shoal” and “to complete a regional Code of Conduct in a timely fashion.”

“What might be a challenge today for some of ASEAN’s members, if left unaddressed by all of ASEAN, could lead tomorrow to issues that may become problems for (the rest of) other ASEAN members,” she said.

‘Credible defense posture’

Del Rosario said his meeting with Locklear at the DFA touched on various issues related to the West Philippine Sea dispute with China.

US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. accompanied Locklear to the DFA.

“We spoke about many topics. We spoke about regional issues. We spoke about bilateral issues. We talked about the West Philippine Sea, developments there. We also talked about the credible defense posture, and we also talked about maritime domain awareness and the assistance that we’re seeking from them,” Del Rosario told reporters.

At Malacañang, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Locklear’s visit was a demonstration of US commitment to help the Philippines improve its defense against external threats.

“It was a courtesy call by Admiral Locklear… Essentially, we reaffirmed the long-standing relationship between the US and the Philippines and, insofar as Admiral Locklear is concerned, they also reaffirmed their support to assistance in achieving a minimum credible defense position,” Lacierda said.

“The thrust of the Armed Forces right now is our external defenses. So we are in the process of acquiring military hardware. So (on) that part, the United States has reaffirmed its support,” he said.

“The minimum defense posture is something that we’ve been wanting to do,” Carandang, for his part, said.

“Before we had any issues with China, the President has always said that we need to develop a minimum credible defense posture. I think that’s been consistent whether or not we had had issues with China, that was a need that we had recognized from day one of this administration,” Carandang said.

“You know that our defense capabilities have fallen behind everybody else’s, right? So we need to build up a minimum credible defense to make other countries think twice about (bullying us),” Carandang said.

“When we came we saw that it needed to be upgraded,” he said, referring to the country’s defense capability.

“This would have happened independently of whether or not we had this incident with China. Just look at our defense capabilities. Clearly it needed an upgrade. And that’s what this is about. The minimum credible defense has to do with us building up our defenses to the level where people will have second thoughts about incursions or aggression against us,” Carandang said.

Asked if the US would provide equipment or training, Carandang said Locklear gave assurance that his country is willing to “help us achieve that minimum credible defense” and that the details would be left with the Department of National Defense and the DFA to talk about.

“I think it’s very clear that we need to do that and it’s clear that we’ve needed to do that for a long time. Not just now,” Carandang said.

Asked if China was not mentioned at all during the meeting, Carandang said: “I didn’t say that. I said that there was a context in which we were having these discussions. I think that was very clear to everybody.”

He said China was mentioned “in the context of our need for minimum credible defense posture.” Carandang said the meeting lasted for about 30 to 40 minutes and “I’m not prepared to go into the specifics.”

“We didn’t talk about specific issues that have been happening lately, it’s more broad strokes,” he said.

With Locklear aside from Thomas were Steve Weston of the US embassy; Maj. Gregory Beaulieu, US Pacific Command Philippine Desk; Marc Wall, political advisor of USPACOM; senior defense official Col. Rocky Carter; and Colonel Sean Jenkins, executive assistant to USPACOM commander. Armed Forces of the Philippines deputy chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gregorio Macapagal, Defense Undersecretary Honorio Azcueta, and Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. were also present during the meeting. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin was on a trip to Brunei.

“Discussed during the visits were the deepening of cooperation, assistance and support activities in maritime domain awareness, information sharing, capability upgrading and in humanitarian assistance and disaster response among others,” DND spokesman Paul Galvez said.

“This is a continuing affirmation of our alliance and deepening relations with the US in light of the various recent bilateral meetings such as the 2+2, the visit of (President Aquino) at the White House and meetings at the Shangri-La Dialogue,” he added.

Locklear is scheduled to visit Camp General Basilio Navarro in Zamboanga today to meet with troops from the US Armed Forces Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF).

The four-star Admiral Locklear is on his first visit to the country since taking command of the USPACOM in March.

As the senior military authority in the Pacific Command area of responsibility, Locklear overseas an area that encompasses about half of the earth’s surface that is home to more than half of the world’s population, and to several of the world’s largest militaries and two of the three largest economies. Locklear graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1977. His career as surface warfare officer includes assignments aboard USS William V. Pratt (DDG44), USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), USS Callaghan (DDG 994) and USS Truxtun (CG 35), among others.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved