The Philippines, lamenting the poor state of its armed forces, appealed Monday for US and international help in building a "minimum credible defense" amid an escalating territorial dispute with China.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin made the pitch in unprecedented joint talks in Washington with their US counterparts Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta.
Del Rosario lamented how the international news media has accurately described the poor state of the Philippine armed forces.
"It sounds terribly painful for the Philippines, but more painful is the fact that this is true, and we only have ourselves to blame for it," del Rosario said candidly as Clinton and Panetta listened across a table.
"For the Philippines to be minimally relied upon as a US regional partner... it therefore behooves us to resort to all possible means to build at the very least a most minimal credible defense posture," del Rosario said.
"On our own, we will do the best we can," the top Philippine diplomat said.
"Developing a minimum credible defense posture may however be hastened mainly through an enhancement of the activities we do together with our singular treaty and through a positive consideration of increased assistance that we seek at this time as well," he said.
The two nations, which completed extensive war games earlier this month, are bound by a mutual defense treaty in which the United States has pledged to come to the aid of its weaker ally if it faces military aggression.
"We are concurrently seeking a higher level of assistance from other international partners," del Rosario added.
Gazmin alluded to tension with China over islands in the South China Sea as he called for the need to "intensify our mutual trust to uphold maritime security and the freedom of navigation."
"We should be able to work together to build the Philippines minimum credible defense posture, especially in upholding maritime security," Gazmin said.
The Philippines and China have been embroiled in a dispute over a shoal in the South China Sea, with both nations stationing vessels there for nearly three weeks to assert their sovereignty.
The Philippines says Scarborough Shoal is its territory because it falls well within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, as recognized by international law.
The Philippines has called for arbitration through the United Nations to end the dispute, but China has refused.
In a press conference after the talks, the Philippine officials stressed diplomacy when asked what aid they had sought from Washington to bolster Manila's ability to patrol its waters and deter what they call intrusions.
"The assistance we have sought is to help us bring the case to international legal bodies so that the approach is the legal rules-based approach in resolving the issue in the South China Sea," Gazmin said.
Clinton, the US secretary of state, told reporters that the first meeting of the two countries' four key national security officials is "a testament to our shared commitment to write a new chapter" in their partnership.
She voiced concern about Scarborough Shoal, repeating that Washington does not take sides on competing sovereignty claims there but has a national interest in maintaining freedom of navigation as well as peace and stability.
"The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all those involved for resolving the various disputes that they encounter," she said. "We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claims."