US President Barack Obama yesterday offered the Philippines a warship as part of a $250mn aid package to Southeast Asian allies worried about Chinese efforts to control the South China Sea.
Obama made the pledges aboard the Philippine Navy’s flagship, shortly after arriving in Manila for a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders to also be attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“My visit here underscores our shared commitment to the security of the waters of this region and to the freedom of navigation,” Obama said as he announced the assistance.
The offers were aimed at reassuring allies that the US was committed to maintaining security in the region’s waters, following Chinese artificial island building in parts of the South China Sea that are claimed by multiple nations.
China claims nearly all of the sea, a strategically vital waterway home to some of the world’s most important shipping routes.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have competing claims to parts of the sea, which is also believed to sit atop vast oil and gas resources.
China’s recent building of artificial islands in parts of the sea close to the Philippines had already prompted the US to deploy a missile destroyer and B-52 bombers to the area.
China was almost certain to react angrily to Obama’s announcement, as it insists the US has no right to involve itself in disputes over waters that are far away from US coasts.
China had also repeatedly called for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, which starts today, to focus exclusively on trade and not be distracted by the rows.
The Philippines, which has one of the weakest militaries in Asia and is the most vocal critic of China’s actions in the sea, will receive the most support under the US package.
Obama said the Philippines would get a decommissioned US Coast Guard cutter to be turned into a new warship that will “bolster the navy’s ability to conduct long-endurance patrols”.
He said the Philippines would also get a research vessel to help map its territorial waters. The Philippines will receive a record $79mn in assistance to bolster maritime security this financial year, the biggest recipient in Southeast Asia, the White House said.
“This will be a significant contribution for our maritime security capability,” Philippine defence department spokesman Peter Galvez said.
Vietnam, a former US enemy that has also spoken out strongly against China, will get $40.1mn in aid over this financial year and next, according to a White House statement.
Indonesia, which is not a claimant but has asked China to clarify its position in the sea, will get nearly $20mn to help “protect its maritime areas”.
Malaysia, where Obama will travel to on Friday for another regional political summit, will receive $2.5mn worth of maritime security aid.
Obama will today meet Xi at the start of the Apec summit, which groups leaders from 21 Pacific rim economies that account for more than half of the global economy.
While the two-day summit is meant to focus on fostering trade unity, the annual event is often sidetracked by other global issues.
This year it will be held under the global shadow cast by last week’s rampage in Paris claimed by the Islamic State group that killed at least 129 people Obama, Xi and a host of other leaders arrived in Manila yesterday from Turkey, where they attended a summit of the Group of 20 top economies that also focused heavily on IS and how to destroy the jihadist network. Islamic State leaders “will have no safe haven anywhere”, Obama said at the G20 summit, vowing a ruthless pursuit of the group.
Philippine authorities, which had already deployed more than 20,000 police and soldiers for the summit, said security had been ratcheted up even higher because of the Paris attacks.
Parts of the chaotic capital of 12mn people have been brought to a standstill this week to ensure security for the leaders, with key roads closed, barricades erected and a deliberately visible presence of security forces.
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