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US senators want more joint US-PH military exercises to counter growing China influence

MANILA -- The United States seeks to have more joint military exercises with the Philippines and other Asian countries as a means to counter the growing influence of China in the Asia-Pacific region, and as a response to the conflict in the West Philippine Sea.
This was the message of Senators John McCain (Arizona), Joseph Lieberman (Connecticut), Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island), and Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire), who are in the country to meet with President Benigno Aquino III, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. 
Taking off from US President Barack Obama’s policy pronouncement that US defense budget will shift its focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, McCain said the Philippines would be a key player in this change as the US considers it “important” and a “leader” in the region, noting the 60th anniversary of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty this year.
“China was a subject of the discussion…While we see no confrontation with China, we emphasize that we will do what we need to do to protect freedom of navigation in the region…We will work with the ASEAN nations to maintain peace and stability here,” McCain said in a press conference at the US embassy after his meeting with the Philippine foreign secretary. 
The US and the world are putting their focus back on Asia-Pacific as the world economy shifts to the region, McCain and Lieberman said. And for them, securing the region meant building up militarily.
McCain said a “strong military presence” of allied nations in the region will make China “achieve its goals peacefully.”
There must be a “strong alliance” of ASEAN nations as a foil to China’s growing military might, McCain said. 
“We will not let the South China Sea dispute be settled by force or bullying, but by the ability to negotiate multilaterally and following the international rule of law,” Lieberman said.
“The best way to secure peace is to prepare for war,” Lieberman said, quoting a familiar saying. 
No more US bases
However, the US senators discounted the re-installation of US military bases in the Philippines.
While saying he has fond memories of the times he spent in Subic, McCain, a former US navy officer and a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, said joint military operations are more likely than the re-installation of the bases. 
The other options to US bases, Lieberman said, are the build-up of the military assets of US allies in the region, as well as joint military exercises, and a sharing of assets and equipment to ensure maritime security. 
The Philippines’ plan to upgrade its air assets “makes sense” following the purchase of Coast Guard cutters, Lieberman said.
But while the Philippines has expressed its intent to buy a squadron of F-16s, this has not been fully discussed and decided upon, he said. 
“The international waters are critically important to the economies here and to the economies of the world. China cannot exercise a disproportionate control of the South China Sea,” Lieberman said. 
DFA officials said this might take a while because the agreement for this has not even been drafted. 
US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. accompanied this delegation, as he did a delegation from the US House of Representatives over the weekend. The delegation was led by US House Committee on Appropriations chairman Representative Harold Rogers, together with Representatives Norman D. Dicks, Ander Crenshaw, Rodney Alexander, Steven C. LaTourette, Tom Cole, and Michael K. Simpson.
DFA and US embassy officials said the two consecutive visits from US legislators over the past few days do not have any significance aside from the fact that US Congress is in session, allowing its members to schedule their travels during this period.
Veronica Uy,


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