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Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to sailors aboard the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego on Sept. 29, 2016.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to sailors aboard the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego on Sept. 29, 2016. (Tara Copp/Stars and Stripes)

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON — The United States will continue to invest in five Philippine military bases as the relationship between the two countries remains “ironclad,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Thursday.

His remarks, part of a speech to sailors onboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in San Diego, came as new Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has tried to distance his government from U.S. influence, most recently by announcing the Philippines would cancel all future military exercises with the U.S.

Duterte has also insulted President Barack Obama, prompting the U.S. leader to cancel a meeting during a Laos summit in early September. Soon after, the Philippine president demanded the withdrawal of U.S. special forces fighting Islamic extremists on the southern island of Mindanao.

Those developments, while a stark difference from the closer relationship the U.S. had with Duterte's predecessor, are not affecting plans to increase U.S. investment there, a senior defense official said during a background briefing to reporters traveling with Carter.

"I expect we'll get through this," the official said on condition of anonymity. "The U.S. has a strong security interest in the Philippines regardless of who is president." Carter was to meet with Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in Hawaii later Thursday as part of a regular meeting between the U.S. and 10 Southeast Asian defense ministers known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

The speech onboard the Carl Vinson was described by a senior defense official as a preview to the ASEAN meeting, to set the stage for continuing discussions the ministers have on regional security.

In his speech, Carter said the continued focus on the ASEAN relationships marked the “third phase” of the Obama administration’s efforts to rebalance America’s military and political influence in the Pacific region as China continues to develop economically and militarily. The third phase, which continues an effort started in 2012 to move more U.S. military assets to the region and shore up alliances there, “will continue to sharpen our military edge so we remain the most powerful military in the region and the security partner of choice,” Carter said.

To execute the first and second phases of the rebalance, the Pentagon made plans to shift 60 percent of its military assets to the region by 2020, and worked to strengthen the relationships with many of the countries that defense officials see the U.S. will need to counterbalance China’s rise and increased militarization of the South China Sea.

This is Carter's sixth trip to the Asia-Pacific as defense secretary. On each of those visits he has worked to secure new trade and military cooperation agreements with countries such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan.

The Philippines agreement, called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, was considered an important part of the U.S. rebalance, particularly given the country’s proximity to the Spratly Islands, where China has claimed sovereignty.

The agreement was signed in April between Carter and Gazmin Voltaire, the Philippines’ former defense secretary, and called for the U.S. to help modernize five Philippine bases in preparation for increased rotations of U.S. forces there.

In the past few days, the most recent rotation of U.S. air power arrived at Clark Air Base, one of the five locations that were part of the agreement. The rotation includes two Air Force C-130s and about 120 personnel to support them, an Air Force statement said.

The U.S. is in the planning phase for identifying what refurbishments, such as runway repairs, would be needed for future U.S. rotations at all five locations, the official said.

"We are just getting started," the official said.

Despite each of the recent maneuvers by Duterte to distance the Philippines from its U.S. ties, Carter and the Pentagon have continued to emphasize the agreement and that U.S. involvement will continue.

"We have had a long, enduring alliance with the Philippines that's lasted, I think, over 60 years," the official said. "It's had its ups and downs and it's survived. And it's going to continue to survive based on what we think are strong U.S.-Philippines common security interests." Twitter: @TaraCopp


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