United States Defense Secretary Mark Esper will visit the Philippines early next week to meet with Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, as part of Esper’s Indo-Pacific tour that includes a meeting of Southeast Asian defense ministers in Thailand over the weekend.
“In the Philippines, Secretary Esper will meet with his Philippine counterpart to advance the alliance as well as strengthen regional security cooperation to uphold international rules and norms,” stated an announcement on the US Department of Defense website.
Esper will also pay his respects to fallen US service members buried at the Manila American Cemetery in Taguig City.
Esper’s Asia visit began Thursday, November 14, in South Korea, where he is set to meet with his counterpart and other officials to discuss their alliance and bilateral defense cooperation. The talks are expected to cover issues with North Korea and other regional tensions.
He will then head to Thailand for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers’ Meeting, which Lorenzana will also attend.
After his stop in the Philippines, Esper will visit Vietnam to meet his counterpart there and other officials. They will “discuss the regional security environment and ways to enhance the growing defense relationship.”
The Philippines and the US regularly hold joint military exercises to flesh out their treaty alliance forged in 1951. The summer Balikatan exercises, the recent Kamandag drills between the two countries’ marine corps, and the Sama-Sama naval exercises in the waters off Palawan are among the major yearly engagements of their defense forces.
Last September, both militaries agreed to hold more security engagement activities in 2020, and “reaffirmed their continuing and close relationship by enhancing cooperation in counterterrorism, maritime security, cybersecurity, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and many others,” a US embassy statement said at the time.
Also in September, the US and ASEAN states held their first joint naval exercises in the waters off Sattahip, Thailand.
The US is rekindling alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific as an increasingly assertive China begins to dominate the region’s economy and politics. A trade war further complicates ties between the two countries. China has consistently criticized US activities in the region, calling it an “outsider.” The US has retorted by referring to China’s actions – reclaiming, militarizing, and swarming reefs in the West Philippine Sea – as “destabilizing.”
Lorenzana earlier proposed to revisit the Philippines’ Mutual Defense Treaty with the US to check whether it remains “relevant” in light of the growing threat from China. The US has since clarified that the treaty covers the West Philippine Sea, that is, it would come to Filipinos’ aid in case of an armed attack in the contentious waters.