By Cheryl Pellerin
On the last stop of what he called a “very productive” trip to four countries in Southeast Asia, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met today with Philippine government and defense leaders and later paid his respects to U.S. troops laid to rest at the Manila American Cemetery.
The secretary left Washington, D.C., Aug. 22 and visited his counterparts in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei before arriving today in Manila.
In Brunei on Aug. 28 he attended a meeting of defense ministers from 10 countries that belong to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. The 10 member states are Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Yesterday, he attended the second-ever meeting of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus, a group made up of the 10 ASEAN defense ministers and eight dialogue partners: defense ministers from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, New Zealand and Russia.
Today in Manila, after meeting with President Benigno S. Aquino III at the Malacanang Palace, Hagel and National Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin held a press conference there.
“In my meeting with President Aquino I noted that the deep and unbreakable alliance between the United States and the Philippines is an anchor for peace and stability and prosperity in this region,” Hagel said.
“Our close ties to the Philippines have been forged through a history of shared sacrifice and common purpose,” he added, “and continuing to strengthen the close partnership between our nations is an important part of America’s long-term strategy of rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific.”
An important topic of discussion among the three men and Foreign Secretary Albert F. del Rosario involved ongoing negotiations for a Framework Agreement that would allow U.S. forces to operate on Philippine military bases and in Philippine territory and waters to help build Philippine armed forces capacity in maritime security and maritime domain awareness.
The last time the United States and the Philippines signed a mutual defense treaty was in 1951, and the new Framework Agreement would update the agreement for routine troop rotations and related activities, according to a senior defense official traveling with the secretary.
“The visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to the Philippines coincides with an important date for Philippines-U.S. defense relations,” Gazmin said at the press conference. “For it was on 30 Aug. 1951 that the mutual defense treaty was signed. Today is the 62nd anniversary.”
“In the spirit of that [early] treaty and its continuing relevance today, President Aquino and I reaffirmed the progress being made in the ongoing discussions for our Framework Agreement,” Hagel said.
Hagel said the Framework Agreement will strengthen cooperation between the two militaries and help them work together more effectively. He noted that the negotiating teams are working hard to finish the agreement.
“The United States does not seek permanent bases in the Philippines,” Hagel said. “That would represent a return to an outdated Cold War mentality. Instead, we are using a new model of military-to-military cooperation befitting two great allies and friends.”
Increasing the United States’ rotational presence in the Philippines as it has done recently in Singapore and Australia will benefit the U.S. and Philippine militaries, Hagel said, by increasing their ability to train and operate together and support President Aquino’s defense modernization agenda.
The United States has a great deal of experience in building a modern military, the secretary said.
“And we would like to share what we’ve learned with our Philippine allies,” Hagel added.
The leaders also discussed the situation in the South China Sea, where many countries have overlapping claims on the area that could lead to tensions in the maritime domain.
Hagel called this “an issue the United States, our allies, partners and friends in this part of the world hope will be resolved peacefully and without coercion.”
The United States supports ASEAN efforts to negotiate a South China Sea Code of Conduct, which Hagel said would help peacefully manage disagreements and disputes that arise from competing territorial and maritime claims.
“In the meantime,” the secretary said, “we encourage nations to peacefully resolve their disputes through internationally accepted mechanisms in accordance with international law, including the Law of the Sea.”
Later in the afternoon, Hagel took time from his schedule to honor 17,202 fallen troops from World War II, Americans and some Filipinos who fought shoulder to shoulder, buried at the Manila American Cemetery here on 152 acres of elegantly designed green space settled on gently rising ground.
On the rise is a simple tower that contains a small chapel and altar. On a regular schedule, a carillon plays the national songs of the Philippines and the United States, then Taps.
Flaring from each side like parentheses are two long narrow structures formed into a series of open rooms. Some rooms have stone benches but most have nothing except maps or names on the walls.
On some walls are drawn colorful maps that detail different World War II battles — the defense of Luzon, 8 Dec. 1941 to 6 May 1942, for example, or the defense of Southeast Asia, December 1941 to May 1942.
Most walls contain the names and details of 36,286 of the missing. According to literature from the cemetery, 16,919 are from the U.S. Army and Army Air Force, 17,582 are from the U.S. Navy, 1,727 from the U.S. Marine Corps, and 58 are Coast Guard.
The Manila American Cemetery is located within the boundaries of the old U.S. Army reservation of Fort William McKinley.
Those resting forever in the cemetery here represent 40 percent of the burials made originally in temporary cemeteries in New Guinea, the Philippines and other islands of the Southwest Pacific, and in the Palau Islands of the Central Pacific, according to the cemetery booklet.
Most of these troops fell in the epic defense of the Philippines and East Indies in 1941 and 1942 or in the long but victorious return of the American forces through the vast island chain, the book said. The cemetery and memorial were finished in 1960. The cemetery was dedicated on Dec. 8, 1960.
At the cemetery, Hagel walked from the motorcade to an area across from the chapel and tower that was covered against the tropical sun. A large display of flowers filled the chapel doorway. He and a small group stood at attention while the carillon played through its songs to Taps.
The secretary approached the chapel and climbed the few steps. He stood for a moment before the display honoring the troops, then offered a quick salute and turned to walk down the stairs.
The graves area is divided into 11 curved lettered plots forming concentric bands around the high ground of the memorial. After examining the chapel, Hagel spent time walking among some of the cemetery’s 17,097 white-cross headstones.