US affirms promise to defend the Philippines

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter told his Philippine counterpart on Wednesday that Washington's pledge to defend the Pacific nation remains "iron-clad" and called for an end to land reclamation in the South China Sea, officials said.

In talks in Hawaii with Voltaire Gazmin, the Philippine Secretary of National Defence, the Pentagon chief "reaffirmed" the strong ties between the two countries and discussed territorial disputes in the contested waters of the South China Sea, where Beijing has been at loggerheads with the Philippines and other states in the region.

Citing Washington's mutual defence treaty with Manila, Carter "stressed that the US commitment to defend the Philippines is iron-clad," the Pentagon said in a statement.

The meeting came as Carter embarks on a tour of Asia and amid rising tensions over Beijing's massive effort to build artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Carter and Gazmin "agreed that all parties involved in the South China Sea should seek a peaceful resolution of disputes, immediately halt land reclamation, and stop further militarisation of disputed features," the statement said.

Manila has said it will keep flying over disputed areas in the South China Sea despite Beijing's warnings. And this month, the Philippines took part in a groundbreaking naval exercise with Japan, in a move aimed at countering a rising China.

Beijing has expanded its land reclamation work in the South China Sea at a dramatic pace in recent months, constructing man-made islands on top of reefs across a wide area to back up its territorial claims.

China insists it has a right to control nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters near the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam and other Asian neighbours.

The Chinese military last week ordered a US Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane to leave an area above the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea. But the American aircraft ignored the demand and said it was flying in what US officials consider international airspace.

After his stop in Hawaii, Carter is due to visit Singapore, Vietnam and India in his second tour of the region since taking over at the Pentagon in February.

"Over the next 10 days, Carter will reaffirm the US rebalance to the Asia Pacific," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said.

Washington has deployed more ships and aircraft to the Asia-Pacific region in the past two years and tried to strengthen its ties to partners in the area as part of its "rebalance" to Asia, which comes as a response to China's growing military might.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.