Assessing Balikatan 2016 and PH-U.S. relations

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The biggest "Balikatan" exercises ended on Friday (April 15).

On Monday night (April 18), CNN Philippines chief correspondent Pia Hontiveros spoke with U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg about the end of the military exercises and the state of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines

Related: Balikatan 2016 officially closes

When asked if it was a good time to show Beijing that the U.S. was serious about freedom of navigation and that no decision has been made about the ownership of the disputed territories in the South China Sea, Goldberg said, "Balikatan was the thirty-second iteration of that exercise and we do it every year."

He added, "It has different edifices at different times but we do practicing on maritime security, we do practicing on different military applications including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. And our people also spread out througout the country and do community projects – building projects – and medical missions. So, it's something we do regularly."

Goldberg said it was something to keep in mind during the whole issue of disputed territories.

He said, "Much of what we're doing is what we always do in supporting the Philippines – our ally – helping the Philippines as it goes about building and modernizing its defense."

He did, however, say that "What's different now is what's going on in the South China Sea... the context."

Hontiveros referred to a previous interview with Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua who said that "Freedom of navigation the South China Sea has always been a very  important factor and China is always in favor of freedom of navigation based on international laws. What we cannot accept is that some countries use freedom of navigation as an excuse to intrude upon the sovereignty and interests of our country. I think there has never been a problem of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and everybody can see that. So, I would urge all countries concerned to truly respect the rights and sovereignty of countries concerned and work together to continue to preserve the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea."

Goldberg replied, "We have been doing freedom of navigation, if that's what you want to call it, for 70 years. What's new is...the context in which this is happening. The building of features, the militarization of those features. The unilateral actions against the wishes of other countries in the region, including allies of the United States, and the flights. So that's what's new. Not freedom of navigation which goes on and will continue to go on, it's an important principle of the United States and every country in this region. Every country has the right to pass through international waters and airspace, so that's what we'll continue to do."

Hidden message?

Hontiveros then asked if there was a message in the April 15 overflight of Amb. Goldberg, U.S. Defense Sec. Ashton Carter, and Department of National Defense Sec. Voltaire Gazmin to Antonio Bautista Air Base, one of the five designated bases that the U.S. can have access to under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), as well the visit to the USS Stennis, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

Related: U.S. announces ramped-up military presence in Philippines

Goldbreg said, "The visit to the Stennis was part of the effort we have underway and freedom of navigation. We had Balikatan going on, which was about maritime security and domain awareness, and our presence in the South China Sea is very much part of our alliance responsibilities, but also the principles we've articulated about freedom of navigation."

He added, "Yes, we've had allies come to those ships before and will continue to do so."

Goldberg was then asked if he referred to the area as South China Sea or West Philippine Sea.

He replied, "I refer to it sometimes as both. But we generally refer to it as the South China Sea."

Fair enough sentence?

On the issue of Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, Goldberg was asked if he thought the U.S. viewed the shortening of Pemberton's sentence to a maximum of 10 years was "fair enough."

Related: Court affirms Pemberton's conviction but reduces sentence to up to 10 years

Goldberg said, "That was for the court to decide and when the court reduced the sentence, that was a decision made by the court based on Philippine law. We respect those decisions. But what we also do is follow the Visiting Forces Agreement, which also takes into account out agreement with the Philippine government about the terms of how he serves the sentence."

Hontiveros then asked about how Goldberg thinks the U.S. government feels about the efforts of the family of Jennifer Laude to have Pemberton transferred outside of Camp Aguinaldo.

Related:  Laude family pleased with court decision affirming Pemberton’s guilt

Goldberg said, "The Philippine-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement provides for agreement by appropriate officials on where that is going to take place; where the sentence will be served and that's what we're doing."

He added: "We have actually come to very good agreements with the Philippine side throughout this process because we are good friends and allies. We have made sure that justice has been served. We helped, actually, through the NCIS with evidence in the case, making sure that case was resolved very quickly... We've worked very well together, including during the stage where the custody was ours, and now a new stage where we've come to an agreement with the Philippines at Caml Aguinaldo where it's done under the Bureau of Prisons, but also with the U.S. content. So, I think it's a very fair arrangement. One that serves the cause of justice."

Election controversies here and in the U.S.

When asked about how local election controversies compare to those in the U.S., Goldberg said: "We have plenty of them. And I saw...that you have them here, too."

When prodded if he had anything to say about the issue surrounding Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Goldberg said, "I can only agree with the colleague from the Australian Embassy."

Goldberg, however, said, "I'm not going to get into your elections or comment on your candidates. That's for the people of the Philippines to decide in election. But, any statements by anyone, anywhere that either degrade women or trivialize issues so serious as rape or murder, are not ones that we condone."

Related: Presidential rivals take swipe at Duterte for rape statement

In conclusion, Goldberg said, "The Balikatan Exercise and the visit by Sec. Carter were very important for the alliance. I think they helped further the relationship on the military and security side. We have a leave behind of an air contingent as well as a new setup for secure and classified communications. Sec. Carter announced a $42 million plus up through the maritime security initiative for the Philippines – which will help the Philippines in building its ability to see out into its maritime space, will add to its ability to put sensors on ships, to put an aerostat blimp in the air to see out into the maritime space. So I think all of those things are moving forward are important for the Philippines and the modernization of the armed forces, but also for our alliance and the ability of the United States to be more present here under the rebalance."