The Philippines and the United States are longstanding allies, and we are committed to honoring our mutual obligations. This year, we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, which continues to serve as a pillar of our relationship and a source of stability in the region. Whether we are working together to combat extremism, help victims of natural disaster, or stand up for human rights, the people of our countries share a vision of a better world and a mutual desire to take action.
So as we reflect on the 60th anniversary of this defense relationship, we are also looking forward as to how we will chart a new vision for this critical alliance.
We discussed a number of bilateral issues in our Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, which brings together representatives of our defense and diplomatic communities to work towards solving common problems that affect us both.
The United States and the Philippines consult on a broad range of security issues, including counterterrorism and maritime security. For example, the United States recently transferred a U.S. Coast Guard cutter to the Philippine navy and helped the Philippines establish a coastal radar system so it can monitor its own waters more closely.
We also discussed the Philippines outstanding efforts to reduce poverty and fight corruption under President Aquino. Through our $434 million Millennium Challenge Compact, which I had the opportunity to announce alongside President Aquino in New York last year, we are working to reduce poverty and spark economic growth.
And the Philippines is only one of four countries in the entire world invited to participate in the Partnership for Growth, which will bring together experts to identify the biggest barriers to economic growth and find ways to overcome them.
The Philippines is also playing a high-profile role in the Open Government Partnership, which is a priority of President Obama’s to improve governance and transparency.
We discussed a wide range of regional and global issues, including the Philippines leadership in the Asia Pacific region. The Obama Administration is committed to enhancing our engagement in this region, and I thank the foreign secretary for the Philippines staunch support for our efforts to elevate our engagement with ASEAN and join the East Asia Summit.
The Philippines is an important regional partner on issues such as human rights, political and economic reform, and we closely consult on the issue in Burma.
We also discussed recent events in the South China Sea. We are concerned that recent incidents in the South China Sea could undermine peace and stability in the region. We urge all sides to exercise self-restraint, and we will continue to consult closely with all countries involved, including our treaty ally, the Philippines.
As I have said many times before, the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded, lawful commerce in the South China Sea. We share these interests not only with ASEAN members but with other maritime nations in the broader international community. The United States does not take sides on territorial disputes over land features in the South China Sea, but we oppose the use of force or the threat of force to advance the claims of any party.
We support resolving disputes through a collaborative diplomatic presence and process without coercion. We believe governments should pursue their territorial claims and the accompanying rights to maritime space in accordance with customary international law, as reflected also in the Law of the Sea Convention. The United States supports the 2002 ASEAN China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and we encourage the parties to reach agreement on a full code of conduct. We look forward to having discussions on these issues at the upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum in July.
So again, Secretary, thank you for a very productive conversation. I look forward to seeing you next month at the ASEAN Regional Forum.
FOREIGN SECRETARY DEL ROSARIO: Thank you, Madam Secretary. It is a privilege for me to return to Washington, D.C. once again in the service of my country and our people. The United States remains the Philippines’s most important strategic partner, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss with Secretary Clinton new ways to strengthen our longstanding alliance.
We discussed our partnership in initiatives that promote economic growth and the establishment of strong democratic institutions such as the Millennium Challenge Account, the Partnership for Growth, and the Open Government Initiative. We also discussed ways to strengthen the level of trade and investment between the U.S. and the Philippines. We discussed the Save Our Industries Act, which has been reintroduced in the Senate by Senator Inouye. We also spoke of our common efforts to combat terrorism and other forms of transnational issues such as trafficking in persons.
Secretary Clinton welcomed the Philippine Government’s progress in anti-trafficking and assured that we will be taken into account in the next review. We agreed that a strong alliance between the Philippines and the U.S., anchored firmly on shared democratic ideals and vision, contributes significantly to the maintenance of the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region. I conveyed to Secretary Clinton the firm intent of the Philippine Government, under the leadership of President Aquino, to play a very active part in maintaining the security of the region.
As I have mentioned in my various meetings around Washington, D.C. and again to Secretary Clinton this afternoon, that while we are a small country, we are prepared to do what is necessary to stand up to any aggressive action in our backyard. The Philippines has made clear its position on the issue: to maintain peace while allowing for the economic development of the area. There is need to segregate the non-disputed areas from the disputed areas. What is ours is ours, and what is disputed can be shared.
I have discussed with Secretary Clinton our proposal for a rules-based regime in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. We adhere to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and are working towards the eventual adoption of a code of conduct. This begins with using all diplomatic channels available to manage the tensions in the area. We have used the existing diplomatic channels to register our concern over China’s aggressive action. We have also put on the table a framework for transforming the area and establishing a zone of peace, friendship, and cooperation.
At the same time, we have committed our own resources towards the development of the necessary capabilities to protect our national borders and ensure freedom of navigation and the unimpeded flow of commerce. We thus welcome the assurance from Secretary Clinton of the U.S. commitment to honor their treaty obligations as well their continuing interest in ensuring freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime sea lanes, and respect for international law in the South China Sea. I look forward to continuing discussions on concrete programs that we can undertake in pursuit of the shared objectives.
The partnership between the Philippines and the United States is also manifest in our multilateral engagements. We welcome President Obama’s participation at the East Asia Summit in Bali later this year. I would like to thank Secretary Clinton for welcoming me back to Washington and for her steadfast assurance that the partnership between the Philippines and the U.S. remains important to the United States and to the overall U.S. engagement in the Asia Pacific region.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you very much.
MS. NULAND: We have two questions from the American side and two questions from the Philippine side. The first question is (inaudible).
QUESTION: Thank you. Secretary Clinton, on the South China Sea, how concerned are you about China’s recent aggressive actions against Vietnamese and Philippine vessels off their coasts? And do you regard this as a serious threat to regional stability? And also, what is your response to comments from a senior Chinese official earlier this week, saying that the U.S. really had no role to play in helping resolve these disputes?
And also, Secretary del Rosario, if you could address your concerns about China’s recent actions.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Our position on the South China Sea has been consistent and clear. We support a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants to resolve their disputes without the use or threat of force. We’re troubled by the recent incidents in the South China Sea that have increased tensions and raised concerns about the peace and security of the region.
These reported incidents clearly present significant maritime security issues, including the freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and the lawful, unimpeded economic development and commerce that all nations are entitled to pursue. We support the ASEAN China declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea. And as the secretary said, we encourage the parties to reach a full code of conduct.
And as I’ve said, we don’t, as the United States, take a position on competing sovereignty claims over land features. And as the secretary said, there is customary international law; there is the law of the seas. What is theirs is theirs and then what is disputed should be resolved peacefully. However, if there are claimants to land or sea features, then they should respect the international law and do everything we can to try to resolve these disputes because, ultimately, territorial disputes have to be resolved by the claimants. But the United States is prepared to support the initiatives led by ASEAN and work with the South China Sea’s claimants to meet their concerns.
And I would just conclude by saying that we are aware of the comments that were recently made by a high-level Chinese official. Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell will be leading the American side in the first Asia Pacific consultation at a high level between the United States and China in Hawaii over the weekend, and this will be certainly one of the most important issues on the agenda.
FOREIGN SECRETARY DEL ROSARIO: On the West Philippine Sea, otherwise known as the South China Sea, we, of course, are concerned about the aggressive intrusions being made by Chinese vessels. And in the last couple of months, since February 25th, we actually have noted as many as nine intrusions of different varieties, but clearly becoming more aggressive and more frequent. We have, of course, responded to these intrusions in terms of filing diplomatic protests. And we have gotten a response which is, in our view, not acceptable. These are responses that – where the – where China is claiming that the South China Sea is totally within their sovereignty under the 9-line concept that they are submitting to the international community.
We, of course, are very concerned about where the direction of these events may be headed. And we have – the Philippine Government has come out with a position that we would like to call attention to everyone that the South China Sea, there should be a rules-based regime that should be put in force there so that international law will have to prevail. And in particular, when you – we say international law, we’re referring to the UNCLOS, or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. We are asking China to please abide by this and we, of course, are hoping that the issue can be resolved diplomatically and in accordance with international law.
MS. NULAND: Next question, Rodney Jaleco, ABS-CBN.
QUESTION: Good afternoon, Madam Secretary, Secretary del Rosario. From ABS-CBN. The Spratly issue is what preoccupies many Filipinos right now as far as foreign affairs is concerned. And one question that keeps cropping up is: What will America do if China attacks Filipino forces in the Spratly Islands? And in this light, the armed forces of the Philippines is shifting. There’s an apparent shift from international security to external defense. And do – this is a question for Madam Secretary. If you think the Visiting Forces Agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines should be reviewed to reflect the current realities in the region. Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, as to your first question, the United States honors our Mutual Defense Treaty and our strategic alliance with the Philippines. I’m not going to discuss hypothetical events, but I want to underscore our commitment to the defense of the Philippines. And with respect to our military cooperation, I think you have to view it on several levels at once.
We are in discussions with the Government of the Philippines about what their needs are because it is up to them to decide how to deploy forces and what their highest priorities are, and I will let the secretary respond to that. But we certainly wish to do what we can to support the Philippines in their desires for external support for maritime defense and the other issues that we have discussed and that the secretary is discussing in other meetings as well. There will be an upcoming U.S.-Philippines joint naval exercise starting on June 28th. It is one of the routine cooperative training exercises that we conduct with the Philippine navy, and it is one more example of our close relationship.
With respect to the VFA, we don’t, at this time, see any need for renegotiating, but we want to evaluate, we want to be sure that we are responsive to the needs that the Philippines have, and we have agreed to do that with the secretary.
MS. NULAND: Okay. Kirit Radia with ABC.
QUESTION: Hi, Madam Secretary and Mr. Secretary. If I could take you to a different region, if you don’t mind. There are reports that Syria is sending tanks to its border with Turkey to prevent refugees from being able to cross the border. Your Ambassador was recently in that region. What can you tell us about anything he may have seen while he was there? What is your message to the Syrian Government? And if I could ask you what your advice would be to the Turkish Government as they prepare to respond to this.
And also, Madam Secretary, there’s reports that another flotilla may be headed to Gaza within the next couple days. What is your message to the organizers and participants in that? Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we are very concerned by the reports that the Syrian military has surrounded and targeted the village of Khirbet al-Jouz, which is located roughly 500 meters from the Turkish border. If true, that aggressive action will only exacerbate the already unstable refugee situation in Syria. And we’ve seen increased refugee flows across the border into Turkey. Recent reports are that there are more than 10,500 Syrians already sheltered by the Turkish Red Crescent in camps on the border.
I have discussed this at length with the foreign minister of Turkey. President Obama has discussed it with the prime minister. We are closely monitoring the situation in Syria and in neighboring countries, and it is further example of the lengths to which President Assad’s regime will go to repress the people of Syria rather than actually working in a collaborative way to try to resolve the legitimate concerns of the Syrian people. And it just is very clear to us that unless the Syrian forces immediately end their attacks and their provocations that are not only now affecting their own citizens but endangering the potential border clashes, then we’re going to see an escalation of conflict in the area. And the United States is already providing humanitarian assistance. We are closely consulting with Turkey. But this is a very worrisome development by the Syrians. They have to know what they’re doing and they have to, I assume, know their own history, because this is not the first time that they have had a provocation that led the Turks to take action to protect their own interests.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) flotilla (inaudible)?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we do not believe that the flotilla is a necessary or useful effort to try to assist the people of Gaza. Just this week, the Israeli Government approved a significant commitment to housing in Gaza. There will be construction materials entering Gaza and we think that it’s not helpful for there to be flotillas that try to provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.
MS. NULAND: The last question will be to (inaudible).
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, good afternoon. The armed forces of the Philippines needs, for once, or six, modern but affordable – and the operative word here is affordable – military hardware from the U.S. so you can have a credible response against external threats at home and the South China Sea. Do you support this, Madam, and can you give us your thoughts on the matter? Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes, we do support that and we are starting a process with the foreign secretary and the Government of the Philippines to review the existing programs and to determine what are the additional assets that the Philippines needs and how we can best provide those. There are a number of different approaches. I know that the Secretary will be meeting later with Secretary Gates and Defense Department officials. So we will closely coordinate inside the United States Government with the Government of the Philippines. We are determined and committed to supporting the defense of the Philippines, and that means trying to find ways of providing affordable material and equipment that will assist the Philippine military to take the steps necessary to defend itself.