US to act in a 'matter of hours' if PH sovereignty is challenged

MANILA, Philippines – A US Marine general gave the Philippines fresh assurances that Big Brother is ready to act swiftly if its sovereignty "in the contested area" is challenged.

"I would tell you that if anybody would challenge the sovereignty of this country, their best friends within this region would respond within a matter of hours. I  assure you that that is not a hallow promise," Brigadier General Paul Kennedy, commander of the US 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, said on Thursday, October 1.

Kennedy is in the Philippines for the resumption of the annual PHIBLEX war games between the US Marines and the Philippine Marines. The two countries have a Mutual Defense Treaty and a Visiting Forces Agreement that allows presence of American troops in the Philippines for various activities.

The US Marine general spoke before the soldiers in the context of the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), an area claimed by the Philippines and 5 other countries including China which has constructed artificial islands there.

The Philippines filed an arbitration case against China. Word war between the two countries has escalated regional tension. (READ: PH to China: Why the display of offensive weaponry)

"We know that this is a contested area. This is a busy neighborhood that you live in..... In the worst case scenario you may be called upon as Marine Corps, and as your allies, should somebody overstep their bounds within the region, 64 years this alliance is held. Our mutual security has been upheld to the close working relationship that we have forged in time," Kennedy said.

The Marines will simulate military and staff operations in the next 10 days.

"We'll be honing our interoperability and our procedures in getting to know each other should we be called upon to operate as a military force," Kennedy added.

The US Marines will also do engineering projects in Palawan, the Philippine island closest to the disputed area. It has become the site of recent military exercises between the US and the Philippines. 

The Philippine government is counting on the US to come to its aid in the maritime dispute. A new agreement – Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) – was forged in 2014 but it remains unimplemented because of constitutional issues. The Supreme Court is deliberating on a petition filed against it.

EDCA will result in the expanded presence of US troops in the Philippines and allow them to build facilities inside Philippine military bases.

Kennedy sought to allay concerns that the US military is looking at re-establishing bases in the Philippines.

"Though this is our second home, don’t worry. We’re not coming to stay," he said.

There used to be tens of thousands of US troops in the Philippines, which hosted large US bases until the Senate evicted them in a historic vote in 1991. They were able to return, albeit in smaller numbers, after the VFA was signed in 1998. – with reports from Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler.com