US President Barack Obama, in Manila for the first of his back-to-back summits in the region, yesterday sought to bolster allies amid China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and to press his case for a key trade agreement.
"My visit here underscores our shared commitment to the security of waters of this region and freedom of navigation," Mr Obama said, shortly after landing here for the two-day summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum beginning today.
Speaking on board the Philippine Navy flagship Gregorio del Pilar, a former US Coast Guard cutter, Mr Obama also announced US$259 million (S$369 million) in maritime security assistance to US allies in the region.
"More capable navies and partnership with the United States are critical for the security of this region," he said.
The choice of the Gregorio del Pilar was highly symbolic as it operates around the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by both Manila and Beijing.
Beijing has insisted that the South China Sea issue should not be discussed in talks meant to focus on trade. But US National Security Adviser Susan Rice said last week that the South China Sea would be a "central issue" during Mr Obama's Asia trip.
Under the US maritime security assistance, the Philippines will receive a third cutter and a research vessel "to help map its territorial waters and bolster its navy's ability to conduct patrols", Mr Obama said.
"We have a treaty obligation, an iron-clad commitment to the defence of our ally," he added.
Hours before the US President arrived here, China said it was the real victim in the maritime dispute because other countries had illegally occupied islands there.
"The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied by neighbouring countries," Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said in Beijing.
"But we haven't done this. We have maintained great restraint with the aim to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea."
Chinese President Xi Jinping also arrived yesterday for the Apec summit but did not make any public announcements.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Tensions have escalated since China stepped up its land reclamation efforts in the Spratlys. The US has sent a guided missile destroyer and a B-52 bomber near the islands to assert "freedom of navigation".
Mr Obama will also use his time in Manila to make his case that passage of the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership is critical to the region's economic health.
After Manila, he will head to Kuala Lumpur, which is hosting the Asean Summit starting tomorrow, followed by the East Asia Summit at the weekend.