By Charmaine A. Tadalan, Reporter
THE UNITED States government on Monday turned over almost a billion pesos worth of precision-guided missiles and munitions to the Philippine military to help it fight terrorists linked to Islamic State in the country’s south.
“This transfer underscores our strong and enduring commitment to our critical alliance,” White House National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien said during ceremonies streamed live on the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Facebook page.
In a separate teleconference, Mr. O’Brien reaffirmed the US stance to maintain order in the Indo-Pacific region.
“One issue that was common to both countries was a commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, a commitment to sovereignty of the countries here in Indo-Pacific,” he said at a teleconference from Manila.
Mr. O’Brien said there is a consensus among US republicans and democrats on the US stand against China’s aggression in the region.
“We have long-term commitments here, whether we’re led by a democrat or republican president,” he added.
Mr. O’Brien said there’s a bipartisan consensus on China’s unfair trade practices and its attempt to coerce its neighbors and other areas including Taiwan.
Earlier in the day, he said the missiles and munitions would help the Armed Forces of the Philippines protect Philippine lives in Mindanao and end suffering imposed by the IS-East Asia.
The US government donated precision-guided missiles and munitions, including 100 TOW-2A missiles, 12 ITAS, and 24 MK-82s worth $18 million or about P868 million.
Mr. O’Brien met with his Philippine counterpart Hermogenes C. Esperon, Jr. and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr.
Mr. O’Brien also welcomed Manila’s decision to defer a plan to end a visiting forces agreement (VFA) — a military pact on the deployment of troops for war games — with the US.
“We look forward to the VFA continuing to facilitate our closer cooperation in combatting terrorism,” he said.
President Rodrigo R. Duterte on Nov. 11 deferred the termination of the defense pact for six more months.
Mr. Duterte in February said he was ending the two-decade visiting forces agreement (VFA) after the US Embassy canceled the visa of Senator Ronald M. dela Rosa, his former police chief who led his deadly war on drugs.
Mr. Duterte pushed for the cancellation of the VFA initially because of the visa issue but later said he had always wanted the Philippines to lose its dependence on the US.
He suspended the termination for six months in June, citing heightened tensions in the region and saying it was a distraction to countries’ anti-coronavirus efforts.
The agreement provides for the legal framework on the temporary presence of US troops in the Philippines.
The VFA, which allows the US to shield its servicemen from prosecution in the Philippines, has been a thorny issue for Filipino patriots who see it as a lopsided deal. The US has used the VFA at least twice to keep accused soldiers under its jurisdiction.
He said the US in July aligned its official position on the 2016 United Nations arbitral ruling on the South China Sea. The tribunal had favored the Philippines and rejected China’s historical nine-dash line claims to more than 80% of the waterway.
The resources in the disputed waters “belong to the Philippine people,” Mr. O’Brien said. “They don’t belong to some other country, that just because they may be big, and they may be bigger than the Philippines,” he added, alluding to China.
“That’s just wrong, and that’s why Secretary Pompeo said in February: ‘Any armed attack on the Philippine Armed Forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger our mutual defense obligations,’” Mr. O’Brien said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February 2019 said any attacks on Philippine aircraft or ships in the South China Sea would trigger a response from the US under the Mutual Defense Treaty.
His comments sought to reassure the Philippines amid China’s island-building activities in the South China Sea.
Three American aircraft carriers were patrolling the Indo-Pacific waters for the first time in nearly three years, a massive show of naval force in a region roiled by spiking tensions between the US and China, the Associated Press reported on June 12.
The patrol of the three warships, accompanied by Navy cruisers, destroyers, fighter jets and other aircraft came as the US escalated criticism of China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, its moves to impose greater control over Hong Kong and its island-building activities in the waterway.
During Monday’s teleconference, Mr. O’Brien criticized China’s role in the spread of the coronavirus, which has sickened 59 million and killed 1.4 million people worldwide. The virus strain was first reported in China’s Wuhan City in Hubei province.
“It’s just a series of unfair and difficult conduct on behalf of the Chinese, so it’s the bipartisan consensus in America that we have to stand up to China,” he said.
The US has finished presidential elections where Joseph R. Biden, Jr. defeated incumbent Donald Trump. He will be inaugurated as the 46th US president in January.