MANILA, Philippines — The U.S. Congress has approved the transfer of a second Coast Guard ship to the Philippines, an official said Friday as Washington shifts its military ties with the Southeast Asian nation that has been engaged in a territorial spat with China.
In the past, U.S. cooperation with the Philippines has focused mostly on counterterrorism, but it has recently expanded to building up the country's moribund navy.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro told reporters Friday that he will consider a Philippine request to have the warship turned over with as much military equipment as possible.
"I'm pleased that the congressional notification period for a second Coast Guard cutter expired this week, so that means Congress has now approved the transfer ... to the Philippines, which will further help Philippine security needs," he said after talks with Filipino defense officials in Manila.
The ship — the second such delivery since last May under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty — is just one of many defense projects that the U.S. is discussing with the Philippines. That comes in addition to having American ships regularly visit and refuel in Philippine ports, rotating U.S. troops in the southern Philippines where al-Qaida-linked Muslim militants are active and holding large-scale joint military exercises.
China has said that it views with concern the increased U.S. military engagement with the Philippines and balked at what it sees as Washington's interference in the South China Sea dispute. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan all have conflicting territorial claims over potentially gas and oil rich islands with the Asian superpower.
The Philippines last year accused Chinese vessels of harassing its oil exploration ships and laying claim to areas within its territorial waters.
Shapiro reiterated the U.S. policy that it takes no position on the claims by any of the parties, that disputes should not be resolved through the use of force and that its defense cooperation with the Philippines is not directed against any one country.
But he also said that his government is committed to helping the Philippines in its security needs and "fully intends to meet its obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty."
The increased focus on strengthening Philippine naval assets, which have lagged behind those of its neighbors and are no match to China's superior military, comes a decade after American troops started training Filipino soldiers and sharing intelligence with them in a campaign to rout out al-Qaida-linked militants. They are blamed for a series of bombing attacks and kidnapping sprees mostly in the country's southern island provinces.
"Traditionally our focus was on helping the Philippines address the internal security threat," Shapiro said. "Given the progress that the Philippine forces and police have made addressing the threat, we're now at a point when both our governments believe we can transition our support towards helping them in maritime security issues."
Still, he said he did not anticipate any immediate changes in redeploying about 600 U.S. Special Forces troops in the southern Philippines.
Shapiro also ruled out any intention to re-establish U.S. bases in the Philippines following a 1991 historic vote in the Philippine Senate to close them down, nearly a century after the United States claimed the islands from Spain.
U.S. military presence continues to be a sensitive issue in the former colony. Left-wing and nationalist groups are opposed to the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows American troops to train here.