The U.S. and the Philippines have recently conducted joint patrols through the disputed South China Sea, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday, and plan to do so again.
The secretary spoke at a news conference with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmi, The Associated Press reports. In addition to announcing the patrols, Carter also said that more U.S. forces and aircraft will be rotated through the Philippines, boosting the American military presence there.
Carter said the patrols and increased military support are intended to "tamp down tensions," according to the AP.
Gazmi, meanwhile, said the U.S. presence "will deter uncalled-for actions by the Chinese."
The South China Sea, a strategic waterway dotted with tiny islands, has been disputed territory for years, with multiple nations laying claim to it. China, in particular, has been moving to dominate the waters.
As Rami Ayyub wrote for NPR on Wednesday:
"Seven different states claim parts of the South China Sea — China, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Many of these claims overlap, spurring the race for control over the sea's islands, reefs and rocks.
"... The distinction between island and rock is important. Owners of islands are entitled to an "exclusive economic zone" out to 200 nautical miles. Rocks do not receive the same designation.
"With this in mind, Vietnam and the Philippines have raced to set up shop on contested rocks, coral reefs and sandbars, turning them into islands through dredging and military fortification.
"But no country has built as feverishly as China."
So far the U.S. has conducted two joint patrols with the Philippines in the disputed area, according to Stars and Stripes, and plans to "continue regular joint patrols." About 275 service members will be in the first wave of new rotating U.S. forces, the military news source says.
They'll be pulled from the 5,000 U.S. troops currently visiting the Philippines for a biannual training exercise, Stars and Stripes reports. The exercise ends Friday.
The U.S. once had a large military presence in the Philippines, but after the island nation banned permanent foreign military bases — and specifically voted to kick out U.S. troops — American forces withdrew in 1992.
An agreement to return U.S. troops to the nation was worked out in 2014, but not approved by the Philippine Supreme Court until this year.
The AP notes that Thursday's announcement of an increased U.S. presence comes shortly after Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Cuisia asked the U.S. for support in the region — specifically, asking America "to help convince China not to build in the nearby Scarborough Shoal, which is viewed as important to Filipino fishermen," the wire service writes.
The leader of a village near the disputed waters told the AP his community was hopeful that, thanks to the U.S. patrols, fishermen might once again be able to sail to the Scarborough Shoal. They haven't had access to the prime fishing region since 2012.
But Charlito Maniago, of the village of Cato, is also concerned that the move might spark a Chinese backlash — and "a dangerous situation may happen."