|Carlos Castillo |||Feb 04, 2016 06:08 AM EST|
(Photo : Reuters) US and Filipino military officers salute during a naval ceremony at the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) headquarters in Manila. The two nations are in the midst of discussing joint naval operations in contested waters in the South China Sea.
The United States is open to joint naval patrols with the Philippines in disputed waters in the South China Sea, a US diplomat said on Wednesday, reiterating the Pentagon's earlier assertion that the US Navy will continue to carry out freedom of navigation patrols in the contentious territory.
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Philip Goldberg, US ambassador to the Philippines, told reporters that the two nations were already discussing the possibility of joint naval operations in the area.
"But we are not going to make announcements about that beforehand because it is our view that we have every right under international law to exercise freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and we will continue to do so," Goldberg said.
Manila had apparently requested combined naval sorties with the US in the contested waters after China began landing commercial aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef, one of three artificial islands on which Beijing has built airfields.
"There is a need for more collaborative presence in the South China Sea," Peter Paul Galvez, spokesperson for the Philippine defense department, said last month. "Thus, in addition to freedom of navigation operations of the US, we are also suggesting that we patrol the area together."
Philippine foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario said last week that US and Philippine officials discussing the joint patrols are considering a particular area within the country's exclusive economic zone.
Goldberg, however, declined to give a definite response when asked by reporters to further comment on the proposed operations.
"I don't want to prejudge how we will carry out the defense relationship," he said, referring to the US security agreement with the Philippines. "But we have a deep interest in assuring freedom of navigation in those waters."
Goldberg made the statement four days after the US guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur entered waters near the Paracel Islands in direct defiance of China's claims that the territory falls within Chinese borders.
Beijing quickly expressed its disapproval of the maneuver, and called on the US to stop its incursions into what it sees as China's territory.
Washington has sought to deter China's creeping seizure of strategic areas in the South China Sea by increasing sea patrols and providing more military aid to allies like the Philippines.
In January, the Philippine supreme court cleared the way for a defense treaty that allows the US to deploy aircraft, naval ships and thousands of US Marines to Philippine shores.
The US military now has access to at least eight military bases in the Philippines where it can rotate aircraft, vessels and troops under the 10-year defense pact.
One of the US Navy's former bases in the Philippine Islands, in Subic Bay north of the capital Manila, is about the size of Singapore.
In 2012, after a tense confrontation with Filipino defense forces, China took control of a shoal just 240 kilometers from the main Philippine island of Luzon.
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