SAN DIEGO, CALIF. (Reuters) – The United States has an “ironclad” alliance with the Philippines, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Thursday, countering statements by the southeast Asian nation’s president that have thrown bilateral relations into deepening uncertainty.
Carter spoke a day after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has branded President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch,” declared upcoming US-Philippines military exercises “the last” and ruled out any joint navy patrols.
“As it has been for decades, our alliance with the Philippines is ironclad,” said Carter, speaking to American sailors aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson at its home port in San Diego.
Through a “landmark” recent agreement, “the United States is supporting the modernization of the Philippine Armed Forces,” he said.
Duterte has engaged in near-daily outbursts against the United States for the last month, raising questions about whether Manila’s next moves could complicate regional diplomacy.
Among other measures, the firebrand leader has said he will order the pullout of the remaining US Special Forces stationed in the Philippines’ restive south.
The comments have cast doubt over an alliance that both countries have sought to strengthen amid shared concerns about China’s military clout and pursuit of broad maritime claims. The Philippines and China have long sparred over sovereignty in the South China Sea.
Carter also noted the Maritime Security Initiative, under which the United States is providing tens of millions of dollars to the Philippines.
Despite his inflammatory comments, Duterte has said the Philippines will maintain security agreements with Washington, and Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said Duterte had only ruled out joint patrols beyond the Philippines’ 12-nautical mile territorial waters. US officials said this week that they had not seen formal requests from the Philippines to stop the joint patrols.
‘Sharpen our military edge’
Carter also said Thursday, the US will “sharpen our military edge” in Asia and the Pacific in order to remain a dominant power in a region feeling the effects of China’s rising military might.
The Pentagon chief described what he called the next phase of a US pivot to Asia – a rebalancing of American security commitments after years of heavy focus on the Middle East.
His speech, aimed at reassuring allies unsettled by China’s behavior in the South China Sea, came three days after he made remarks at a nuclear missile base in North Dakota about rebuilding the nuclear force.
Those comments prompted a strong reaction from the Russian foreign ministry, which issued a statement saying it had interpreted Carter’s statement as a declared intention to lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons.
Carter said the Pentagon will make its attack submarines more lethal and spend more to build undersea drones that can operate in shallower waters where submarines cannot.
“The United States will continue to sharpen our military edge so we remain the most powerful military in the region and the security partner of choice,” he said. (With reports from AP)