Top Pentagon officials host Filipino foreign minister

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter met with Filipino Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario at the Pentagon on Tuesday, the E-Ring has learned from defense officials.

Hagel dropped in on the meeting with Rosario and Carter, which was not previously announced on official schedules, defense officials confirmed. Details of what occurred have yet to be released, but one official said the top issue for discussion was expected to be the damage left by the USS Guardian, an American countermine ship that ran aground on a reef in the Philippines.

The meeting comes as U.S. and Filipino relations have grown closer, U.S. officials feel, and as both nations eye threats coming out of North Korea. The Phillipines agreed to host more U.S. troops, ships and aircraft on a rotational basis, during a visit by then-Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.  

This week, U.S. Navy ships are steaming to the Philippines for this year’s Balikatan, an annual bilateral military exercise between the two countries that is one of the largest in the Pacific, set to begin on Friday. The exercise will occur this year with the world’s eyes firmly fixed on North Korea, whose officials for weeks have characterized ongoing U.S. military exercises with South Korea -- which have included long-range aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons and the Pentagon’s premier fighter, the F-22 Raptor -- as belligerent threats.

Following the USS Guardian’s removal from the reef, an environmental assessment is expected from a joint commission. Filipino officials already have indicated they want fines paid for the disaster, which also destroyed the U.S. ship.

The last section of hull was removed from Tubbataha Reef on March 30, the Navy announced.

"As the hull has been removed, the team is now shifting their effort to collecting minor debris that remains on the reef. We also have a collaborative team from the U.S. and the Philippines beginning to assess the condition of the reef," said Capt. Mark Matthews, the salvage supervisor, in a Navy statement.

Six Navy and privately contracted salvage ships remain on site.