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US Gives the Philippines 2 New Vessels Amid South China Sea Tensions

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US Gives the Philippines 2 New Vessels Amid South China Sea Tensions

Obama gives the Philippine navy a boost after touring a former U.S. coast guard cutter.

US Gives the Philippines 2 New Vessels Amid South China Sea Tensions

U.S. President Barack Obama tours the BRP Gregorio del Pilar as part of a maritime security event.

Credit: Flickr/US Embassy Manila

The United States will hand over two new ships to the Philippine navy to boost the U.S. ally’s maritime security capabilities amid tensions in the South China Sea, President Barack Obama announced November 17 in Manila as he kicked off his weeklong visit to Asia.

The United States has already been stepping up its maritime security assistance to the Philippines over the past few years as Manila confronts Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, despite having one of the weakest militaries in the Asia-Pacific (See: “The Truth About Philippine Military Modernization and the China Threat”).

In that vein, Obama announced on Tuesday that Washington intended to transfer two additional ships to the Philippine Navy – one research vessel, the R/V Melville, to help map its territorial waters and another U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the Boutwell, to bolster the Navy’s ability to conduct long-endurance patrols. As I reported ahead of the visit, the expected announcement is part of a broader U.S. boost to maritime security in Southeast Asia that the administration is rolling out (See: “Obama Philippines Visit to Focus on Maritime Security”).

“Today, I can announce that we intend to transfer two additional ships to the Philippine Navy,” Obama said in an opening event ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting that the Philippines is hosting this year. “More capable navies and partnership with the United States are critical to the security of this region.”

Obama delivered the message at a maritime security event abroad the BRP Gregorio del Pilar near the National Coast Watch Center in Manila Harbor. The watch center was built with U.S. grants and the BRP Gregorio del Pilar was a former U.S. Coast Guard cutter donated to the Philippines back in 2011. The BRP Gregorio del Pilar along with the BRP Ramon Alcaraz – also an ex-U.S. Coast Guard cutter – are currently two of the largest ships in the Philippine fleet.

While Obama did not mention China by name, the focus of his comments was clear as he reiterated Washington’s “ironclad commitment” to the Philippines as well as its more general commitment to maritime security and freedom of navigation.

“Our visit here underscores our shared commitment to the security of waters of this region and freedom of navigation,” he said.

Philippine Fleet chief Rear Admiral Leopoldo Alano told The Inquirer, a local media outlet, that Obama’s speech on board the BRP Gregorio del Pilar was rich in symbolism since it was the first vessel to be donated to the Philippines during his presidency as part of the Excess Defense Articles program. Alano said the new ships would take about six to eight months to secure approvals from both sides and hoped they would arrive before the end of the presidency of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III next year.

As part of the maritime security event, Obama had earlier participated in a tour of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar by Commanding Officer Captain Vincent Sibala as well as a meet-and-greet with Philippine defense officials, Philippine sailors, and U.S. sailors from the Arleigh-Burke class USS Fitzgerald. The USS Fitzgerald, a U.S. navy destroyer, docked in Manila before Obama’s scheduled visit in what the U.S. embassy in the Philippines described in a statement as part of a five-day mission “in general support of APEC.”