MANILA, Philippines — In a highly symbolic ceremony aboard a guided-missile destroyer Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton underscored America's military and diplomatic backing for the Philippines as it engages in an increasingly tense territorial dispute with China in the resource-rich South China Sea.
On board the USS Fitzgerald in Manila Bay, Clinton and Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario signed a declaration calling for multilateral talks to resolve maritime disputes such as those in the South China Sea, contrasting China's policy of negotiating one-on-one with the Philippines and other Asian claimants.
"The United States does not take any position on any territorial claim," Clinton said after meeting with President Benigno Aquino III. But Clinton told a forum with young students that Washington is "very strongly against any nation using coercion or intimidation instead of using the law to try to resolve these issues."
Discussions between U.S. and Philippine officials focused on strengthening the Philippines' defense "to have a credible deterrent, to be able to protect what is yours and to be able to pursue lawful activities, whether it's for fishing or exploration for gas and oil," she said.
The Philippines and Vietnam have accused Chinese vessels of repeatedly intruding into areas they claim in the potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and of trying to sabotage oil explorations in their territorial waters. China has denied the allegations, saying it has sovereignty over the vast sea.
"We are making sure that our collective defense capabilities and communications infrastructure are operationally and materially capable of deterring provocations," Clinton said aboard the Fitzgerald, a U.S. Navy vessel that has operated in the South China Sea.
Del Rosario urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes the Philippines, Vietnam and two other claimant countries, on Tuesday to host an unprecedented meeting of countries embroiled in the Spratly dispute. Beijing opposed any multilateral discussion of the issue, including at an East Asian summit this week in Bali, Indonesia, to be attended by President Barack Obama and other world leaders.
Defying China, Clinton said the U.S. "will certainly expect and participate in very open and frank discussions," including on the maritime challenges in the region.
The Manila Declaration signed by Clinton and del Rosario commemorated the 60th anniversary of the allies' Mutual Defense Treaty. It calls for "maintaining freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, and transit of people across the seas."
Asked if intensified U.S. military aid would mean sending more troops to the Philippines, Clinton did not clearly reply but said any future deployments would be temporary, citing local sensitivities.
Dozens of left-wing activists calling for the abrogation of a treaty that allows U.S. troop and ship visits to the country hurled red paint on part of her convoy, and a student unfurled an anti-treaty poster and heckled Clinton as she spoke at the forum with young students.
In addition to China, the Philippines and Vietnam, the Spratlys are also claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. The dispute has been feared as Asia's next flash point for conflict.
The U.S. has angered China by saying it has a stake in security and unhampered international commerce in the South China Sea. China says American involvement will only complicate the issue.
The Philippines, whose poorly equipped forces are no match for China's powerful military, has resorted to diplomatic protests and turned to Washington for support. Aquino has insisted his country won't be bullied by China.
A senior U.S. State Department official traveling with Clinton told reporters that America's military assistance to the Philippines will increasingly shift to bolstering its naval power.
For nearly a decade, the U.S. military has been providing counterterrorism training, weapons and intelligence to help Filipino troops battle al-Qaida-linked groups in the nation's south. Those include the Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent group listed by Washington as a terrorist organization, and its allied militants from the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah group.
"We are now in the process ... of diversifying and changing the nature of our engagement," the U.S. official said Tuesday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. "We will continue those efforts in the south, but we are focusing more on maritime capabilities and other aspects of expeditionary military power."
The U.S. recently provided the Philippines with a destroyer, and the official said a second one will be delivered soon.
Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.
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