US assures Manila of 2nd warship amid Spratlys row

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The United States will provide a second warship to the ill-equipped Philippine military as it confronts China in increasingly tense territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a Philippine official said Thursday.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton assured Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin during talks in Manila on Wednesday that Washington would give its longtime ally a second Coast Guard cutter virtually for free some time next year.

The first second-hand cutter from the U.S. Coast Guard sailed into Manila in August and became the most modern vessel in the dilapidated Philippine fleet. Clinton assured the Philippine military of intensified U.S. assistance Wednesday when the allies marked the 60th anniversary of the signing of their Mutual Defense Treaty aboard a U.S. naval destroyer in Manila.

The first U.S. ship, which has been renamed the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, would be deployed to secure Philippine territorial waters in the South China Sea as early as this month, the military said.

Gazmin said he and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario would meet Clinton and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon in January to discuss America's assistance, including a Manila request for a third Coast Guard cutter.

During his Wednesday meeting with Clinton and other U.S. officials, Gazmin said he told them the Philippines would try to bolster its defense capability on its own but appreciated the help in case of any emergency in the volatile South China Sea.

"We will stand alone as much as possible," Gazmin told The Associated Press. "But when push comes to shove, it's reassuring somebody is behind us."

About 50 students, opposing any increased U.S. military involvement in the country, burned a mock U.S. flag and called for the abrogation of a treaty allowing American military troops and ships to visit and train.

The 120,000-strong military said it was awaiting the upgrade of 20 MG520 assault helicopters and delivery of four other combat helicopters, seven multipurpose assault sea vessels and 40 military trucks soon. The army is also acquiring 335 light rocket launchers and 100 81-mm mortars.

Some of the new equipment would be deployed to guard the country's extensive coast and territorial waters, including near disputed South China Sea areas, military chief Gen. Eduardo Oban Jr. said.

China and the Philippines, along with Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei have been contesting ownership of the potentially oil-rich Spratlys, which straddle international sealanes. All except for Brunei have stationed combat troops on islands and reefs they claim.

The Philippines and Vietnam have accused Chinese government vessels of repeatedly intruding into their claimed territories in the Spratlys and of disrupting oil explorations in their territorial waters in the first half of the year.

Last year, the Indonesian navy came close to a shooting encounter with Chinese vessels, which strayed into waters off Jakarta's Natuna island gas field near the South China Sea. Indonesian officials played down the incident as an intrusion by ordinary fishermen unrelated to the South China Sea dispute.

China's claim over virtually the entire South China Sea, which Beijing first made public in 2009 before the United Nations, appears to overlap with Indonesia's territorial waters off Natuna. China has not detailed the limits of the South China Sea claim, according to maritime experts.

___

Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this report from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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