A nuclear-powered attack submarine of the United States Navy arrived yesterday for a port call in Subic Bay, Zambales amid tension between the Philippines and China over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
The USS Louisville would replenish supplies and give its crew an opportunity to take their rest and relaxation, according to a statement from the US embassy.
The embassy said the routine port call “highlights the strong historic, community, and military connections between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines.”
The USS Louisville is the second US attack submarine that visited the Philippines since Washington announced plans to boost its presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
The first was the USS North Carolina that docked in Subic Bay last May.
The port call was made as China and the Philippines are in a standoff near Panatag Shoal, located 124 nautical miles from the coast of Masinloc, Zambales.
The military, however, clarified that the visit of the Louisville has nothing to do with the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.
“(The ship) has no mission in the Philippines except replenishment. That was stated in its diplomatic clearance. They have no activity involving the Philippine Navy,” said Navy spokesman Col. Omar Tonsay.
He said there is nothing unusual even if the Louisville’s visit came just a month after North Carolina’s port call.
“I don’t see anything unusual there if they will just replenish here in the Philippines. It’s normal for ships to replenish,” Tonsay said, adding that it was the US that sought clearance for the port call.
USS Louisville will dock in Subic Bay until June 30. The fast attack Los Angeles-class submarine is the fourth US ship to bear the name of the city of Louisville, Kentucky.
Journalists were not allowed to cover the visit of the submarine, which was commissioned on November 8, 1986 at the Naval Submarine Base in New London, Connecticut.
The Louisville is 360 feet long, weighs 6,900 tonnes, and is armed with sophisticated MK48 torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The standoff in Panatag Shoal started on April 10 after Chinese maritime surveillance ships barred the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen who were caught poaching and illegally harvesting endangered marine species in the area.
Manila had protested Beijing’s actions in the shoal, which is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
China maintained that it has sovereignty over the area even if it is a signatory of the UNCLOS.
Aside from Panatag Shoal, the Philippines is also claiming several islets, shoals, reefs and sandbars in the Spratlys group of islands, which is also being claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
Early this month, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the US is planning to deploy a majority of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020.
Speaking to the delegates of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Panetta said the move is in line with US efforts to boost its presence in the Asia Pacific.
He said the US naval assets would be realigned from a roughly 50-50 split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about 60-40 split between those oceans.
Panetta said the move would involve key assets including six aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships, and submarines.
The US official claimed that the deployment was not meant to challenge China, which has been wary of Washington’s plan to boost its presence in the region.
Panetta, nevertheless, said the US is “paying close attention” to developments at Panatag Shoal.
Information sharing not necessary
Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said sharing with the US the information on Chinese intrusion in Philippine waters may not be necessary since Washington already has very sophisticated intelligence equipment.
Responding to a question during the Joint Membership Meeting of the Makati Business Club and the Management Association of the Philippines last month about how the Philippines shares with the US information about Chinese intrusion, Del Rosario said, “I think we do not have to send pictures to the US.”
US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. said on Thursday that there is no doubt and no question that his government stands by its commitments under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
Asked about questions and doubts raised on US support to the Philippines on the issue of maritime dispute because of deep economic ties between the US and China, Del Rosario said it is an opinion everybody is entitled to.
“We stand by our treaty commitment. It’s amazing to me that people would question that,” Thomas told the media during the first Kapihan sa Embahada.
He said the US is concerned about the events in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), including the tensions surrounding Panatag Shoal, emphasising that Washington opposes coercion by any nation to advance its claim and the US clearly supports the Code of Conduct between China and Asean.
But Thomas did not provide a categorical answer when asked about the provision in the MDT on an attack on one party being considered an attack on the other, saying it is hypothetical and the US hopes for de-escalation and no violence in the disputed waters.
“All we can say (is) we stand by our commitments and I’m not going to change that. The Secretary of State, the President of the United States have also said we stand by our treaty commitments,” he said.
US embassy Political Counsellor and acting deputy Chief of Mission Joy Yamamoto said, “The language of the MDT demonstrates our very strong commitment to the Philippines.”
Yamamoto and Thomas said the US supports settlement of the disputes in the West Philippine Sea towards the use of a rules-based regime in accordance with international law and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
Yamamoto said, “We’ve been very consistent throughout the dispute in supporting international law and settlement of this kind of dispute under international law, so we would support China and the Philippines settling the issue through international means.”
China had accused the US of creating tensions in the region and repeatedly warned that territorial disputes over the West Philippine Sea were issues between China and claimant countries.
Beijing said it would not allow US involvement in territorial disputes.
The ambassador said the US has been very clear that it takes no side in territorial disputes or cross-cutting claims between several states, not just China, but urged all parties to sit down and iron out disputes in a peaceful and legal manner.
Although the US position is not to get involved in territorial disputes, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing concerns on the US accession to UNCLOS, where she said Chinese claims exceeded what was allowed by the UNCLOS.