US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks to reporters aboard a US military plane

Amid accusations that the Philippines was not taking advantage of an arbitral ruling that upheld Philippine sovereign rights over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea, Esperon said, "This Administration does not and will not abandon the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea disputes".

Just days ago, USA sent two of its warships in the disputed waters as it conducted "freedom of navigation", which provoked China and led the latter to warn them off.

But speaking at a hearing focusing on the South China Sea on Wednesday at the legislative assembly, former Philippine maritime officer Rep. Gary Alejano revealed just how quiet the government's been in dealing with China in the disputed waters.

"You'll notice there's only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff [such operations] or state their resentment of them, but it's global waters and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation, so we will continue that", Mattis told reporters as he flew to Hawaii.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Tuesday that the United States will continue "a steady drumbeat" of naval exercises to challenge China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, amid Beijing's militarization of the contested waters.


This message is being clearly conveyed by its continued military buildup in the disputed South China Sea area even as it participates in negotiations and actions to defuse tensions, including the adoption of a Code of Conduct (COC).

Mattis said, the USA will maintain a "steady drum beat" in the South China Sea to "confront" China for actions that Washington deems to "be out of step with global law" and worldwide tribunal rulings.

In recent years, the USA had sought to stabilize military relations with China, but the militarization of the islands has been a persistent point of conflict.

He said the government "continuously" monitors China's deployment of missiles in the three artificial islands within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Critics say Duterte's approach has emboldened China, which has been increasingly assertive in the potentially oil- and gas-rich waterway that's also claimed entirely or in part by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.


"The other night, the president said if his troops are harmed, that could be his red line", Esperon told reporters. "If there is more than one country militarizing, and it's not only the islands, if huge navies are sailing through the area, is that not militarization?" he said.

"It's worldwide waters, and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation, so we'll continue that", Mattis said.

The US secretary of defense is expected to preside over the change of guard in the US Pacific Command.

Esperon said the Philippine government acknowledged China's continuing military build-up in the South China Sea with "serious concern".

The current head, Admiral Harry Harris, has been nominated to be the new ambassador to South Korea.


National security and defence experts have said that the military operations being conducted by the Pentagon are mainly symbolic and that they have no impact on how China will behave going forward. He will be replaced by Admiral Philip Davidson.

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