- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2015

President Obama on Tuesday issued a direct challenge to Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea by visiting a warship of the Philippine navy in Manila and announcing that the U.S. military will deliver two ships to its ally to bolster maritime security in the region.

Without mentioning China’s recent provocations in one of the world’s most strategic maritime trade routes, Mr. Obama affirmed the U.S. commitment to the Philippines’ security and freedom of commerce.

“We have a treaty obligation, an iron-clad commitment to the defense of our ally the Philippines,” said Mr. Obama, flanked by about two dozen U.S. and Philippines uniformed navy personnel. “My visit here underscored our shared commitment to the security of the waters of this region and to freedom of navigation.”

The president spoke aboard the Gregorio del Pilar, a Philippine navy frigate that was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter until 2011. The vessel has been operating around the Spratly Islands, which Manila and Beijing both claim.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald was also present in Manila Bay to support Mr. Obama’s visit.

Hours earlier, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said China was the real victim in the South China Sea dispute because three rival claimants illegally occupied “dozens” of its islands and reefs. He did not name any countries.

“The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied,” Mr. Liu told reporters in Beijing, “but we haven’t done this. We have maintained great restraint with the aim to preserve peace and stability.”

Beijing has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes every year.

Last week, U.S. B-52 bombers flew near Chinese artificial islands in the area, signaling Washington’s determination to challenge Beijing over the disputed sea.

The verbal jousting could cast a shadow over the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit of about 20 heads of state and government, including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Manila has said it would not bring up the maritime dispute to avoid embarrassing Mr. Xi but could not prevent others from doing so.

Mr. Xi also arrived in Manila on Tuesday but did not make any public comments.

Mr. Obama announced that two more U.S. ships would be transferred to the Philippines — a research vessel to help navigate territorial waters and a Coast Guard cutter for “long-endurance patrols” — part of a two-year, $250 million package to enhance regional maritime security.

During a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Mr. Obama raised the dispute over the South China Sea, saying such issues “should be resolved by international norms and rule of law, and peacefully settled.”

The U.S. Navy in October sent a ship within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese-occupied island in the South China Sea to advertise that Washington did not recognize China’s exclusive claim to the area. Beijing condemned the move.

U.S. officials say they will raise the maritime security issues with China’s delegation during the summit.

The APEC meeting is the first of two summits aimed at improving trade and security ties, but the gatherings are being overshadowed by last week’s coordinated terrorist attacks on Paris.

Mr. Obama is expected to try to return the focus in part toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that he views as the key to his plan to “rebalance” U.S. foreign policy with Asia-Pacific countries. He is scheduled to meet this week with leaders of the other 11 nations that have signed the pact.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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