U.S. EXPANDING PRESENCE IN SOUTH CHINA SEA; Readies additional $100-M military aid to the Philippines

US WARSHIP IN MANILA. The US Navy's USS Ronald Reagan docks in Manila with over 5,000 officials and crew. US Ambassador to Manila MaryAnn Carlson is shown on board the ship conferring with officers in this file photo. Five more sites in the Philippines are mulled to host American troops as they ready for Balikatan war drills this April.

By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief

SINGAPORE/MANILA — After the warming up of ties between US President Joseph Biden Jr. and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the United States announced plans to expand its presence in the South China Sea to secure and ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific amid heating tensions in the region over freedom of navigation and conflicting claims of islands and shoals in the area.

At the same time, US Ambassador to Manila MaryKay Carlson disclosed that following Manila’s decision to scrap its multi-million peso helicopter deal with Russia, the US government is offering additional US$100 million in military aid to the Philippines as hundreds of American and Filipino soldiers undertake military drills in Palawan, Batanes and other areas in Luzon.

Days before the announcement by US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in Singapore and Ambassador Carlson in Manila,  the US Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan docked in Manila port for a new visit after a tour of duty off South Korea following tensions caused by North Korea’s firing of ballistic missiles and flying war planes over South Korea.

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In Singapore, Secretary Mayorkas disclosed that the US has announced a US$60-million investment in new regional maritime initiatives throughout the Indo-Pacific region which covers the Philippines.

“We have a significant presence here already. The United States Coast Guard has a presence in the Indo-Pacific region. We intend to advance that presence in more areas here,” Mayorkas said.

The US Homeland Security chief added that the US government is also “rapidly deploying” assets and initial personnel throughout the region for maritime training and capacity building, among others.

Meanwhile, aboard the USS Ronald Reagan which docked in Manila on October 14, Rear Admiral Michael “Buzz” Donnelly, commander of the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 5, assured the US Navy is ready to back its Indo-Pacific allies that includes the  Philippines.

The US Navy “looks to support…the common universal values we share with our allies and partners,” Admiral Donnelly said aboard the US warship.

Earlier, the Philippines and US announced that there will be more than 430 joint military exercises and training of Filipino and American soldiers in the Philippines next year.

At the sidelines of the United Nations conference in New York earlier, President Marcos told President Biden that he is open to the freedom of navigation operations (Fonops) in the West Philippine Sea, which is being claimed by China as part of its territory.

Marcos and Biden discussed the issue of freedom of navigation operations in the disputed seaway during their meeting last month in New York.

Donnelly also told reporters aboard the US carrier the US Navy’s freedom of navigation missions in the West Philippine Sea, “reinforced our commitment that we will fly, steam, and sail anywhere that international law allows.”

US Ambassador Carlson also told reporters on board the US Navy ship, said the USS Ronald Reagan’s visit to Manila strengthens the ties between the Philippines and the US, especially since the Indo-Pacific waters are a “challenging environment to navigate.”

“This visit offers an opportunity to recognize our two nations’ enduring alliance and commitment to each other,” she said in a speech aboard the ship.

“The waters of the Indo-Pacific are dynamic and challenging environment to navigate, and we’re fortunate to work with friends, partners and allies in the Philippines to achieve our mutual security goals,” Carlson said.

“Together we advance our shared objectives, including humanitarian assistance, maritime security, and economic development in the region,” she said.

The US ambassador also described the USS Ronald Reagan’s visit as “a true symbol of our friendship and the strong ties that our two nations share.”

She disclosed that at least 10 percent of the over 5,000 sailors on the carrier are Filipino-Americans. The sailors had their rest and visit while  USS Ronald Reagan was docked in the Manila port. (alfred.gabot@gmail.com)