U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday he will discuss U.S. concerns about Chinese actions that threaten freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea with Philippine officials during an overnight visit to Manila.
Pompeo arrived late Thursday and immediately met with President Rodrigo Duterte at an air base. He was expected to brief Duterte about unsuccessful talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, which he also attended.
“We’re worried that the Chinese are using their power in ways that will deny freedom of navigation in the region and that’s important to every country in Asia, and Philippines included,” Pompeo told reporters as he flew to Manila from Hanoi.
When asked if the U.S. was concerned about China’s actions, Pompeo replied “absolutely,” adding that Washington has a national security strategy to address the problem.
The long-seething territorial disputes are a key irritant between Washington and Beijing, which has turned several disputed barren reefs into islands with runways and other military facilities.
In addition to China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also contest ownership of the strategic waters, where U.S. Navy ships have sailed close to Chinese-occupied islands to assert freedom of navigation.
Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Romualdez said by telephone that a proposed move to re-examine the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between Washington and Manila was also expected to be discussed during Pompeo’s meetings with Philippine officials.
Romualdez said the Philippines has sought a review of the 1951 treaty, which calls on the allies to come to each other’s defense against an external attack, to update it. An initial meeting between Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and a Pentagon official will be held next month in Manila before formal talks begin, he said.
In the past, Filipino officials have tried to clarify whether the Philippines could invoke the treaty to seek U.S. help in case of an attack in the South China Sea.
Duterte, who took office in 2016, has been a challenge to the U.S. because of his frequent attacks on U.S. security policies and his crackdown on illegal drugs that has claimed the lives of thousands of mostly poor drug suspects. He lashed out at former President Barack Obama over criticisms of the crackdown but has had better relations with Trump, who has invited him to visit the White House.
Duterte has revived once-frigid ties with China and sought Chinese infrastructure funding and trade and investment. He has reached out to Russia and once threatened to end the presence of U.S. counterterrorism forces in the country, although that has not happened.
“This is a long-standing, deep relationship between our countries and I hope to go build on that with my counterpart Teodoro Locsin and President Duterte,” Pompeo told reporters.