WASHINGTON - The United States says it will help build the Philippines' sea patrol capability but will not take sides in that nation's standoff with China at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.
The top diplomats and defense officials of the treaty allies held their first joint meeting on Monday and discussed the three-week standoff at Scarborough Shoal in the region which Manila calls West Philippine Sea.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reaffirmed US commitment to its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, and to freedom of navigation and regional security. She reiterated support for a diplomatic resolution to territorial disputes.
A joint statement said they would cooperate on building the Philippines' maritime security capabilities. The United States will transfer a second ship to the poorly equipped Philippine Navy this year.
Clinton later told reporters that the meeting of the two countries' four key national security officials was "a testament to our shared commitment to write a new chapter" in their partnership.
She voiced concern about Scarborough Shoal, repeating that Washington does not take sides on competing sovereignty claims there but has a national interest in maintaining freedom of navigation as well as peace and stability.
"The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all those involved for resolving the various disputes that they encounter," she said. "We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claims."
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin appealed to their counterparts for help in building a "minimum credible defense."
Painful but true
Del Rosario lamented how the international news media has accurately described the poor state of the Philippine armed forces.
"It sounds terribly painful for the Philippines, but more painful is the fact that this is true, and we only have ourselves to blame for it," Del Rosario said candidly as Clinton and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta listened across a table.
"For the Philippines to be minimally relied upon as a US regional partner … it therefore behooves us to resort to all possible means to build at the very least a most minimal credible defense posture," Del Rosario said.
"On our own, we will do the best we can," he said.
"Developing a minimum credible defense posture may however be hastened mainly through an enhancement of the activities we do together with our singular treaty and through a positive consideration of increased assistance that we seek at this time as well," he said.
The two nations, which completed extensive war games earlier this month, are bound by a mutual defense treaty in which the United States has pledged to come to the aid of its weaker ally if it faces military aggression.
"We are concurrently seeking a higher level of assistance from other international partners," Del Rosario added.