Philippines seeks help from the US to protect its troops in disputed sea

By Jim Gomez ,AP

MANILA — The Philippine defense chief said he asked the visiting U.S. Pacific commander on Wednesday to help protect the transport of Filipino troops and supplies to Philippine-occupied reefs in the disputed South China Sea by deploying American patrol planes to discourage mainland Chinese moves to block the resupply missions.

The Philippines has protested past attempts by mainland Chinese coast guard ships to block smaller boats transporting military personnel, food and other supplies to a Filipino military ship outpost at disputed Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed and guarded by Chinese coast guard ships. The tense standoff at the shoal has lasted two years.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the commander, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., assured him of U.S. readiness to provide assistance, adding that the U.S. military has flown an aircraft at least once when a Philippine boat delivered supplies last year to Filipino marines marooned on the rusty naval ship that ran aground years ago at the disputed shoal.

AP journalists witnessing a resupply mission last year saw a U.S. military plane hovering above a Filipino supply boat, which a Chinese coast guard ship tried but failed to block.

Such U.S. military flights deter Chinese moves, Gazmin said, adding that Philippine resupply boats have been harassed less by Chinese coast guard ships after the deployment of the U.S. patrol plane.

“If there are Americans flying around there, we won’t be troubled,” Gazmin said in an interview. “We need to be helped in our resupply missions. The best way they could assist is through their presence.”

Second Thomas Shoal, which is called Ayungin by Filipinos and Ren’ai by Chinese, and the nearby Spratly Islands lie about 190 kilometers (120 miles) from the western Philippine province of Palawan, and about more than 1,000 kilometers (700 miles) from southern China. Mainland China’s external affairs authority says Beijing has “indisputable sovereignty” over the shoal.