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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs    11 June 2012

Obama, Aquino meet: Building defences against China

09 June 2012

The United States pledged to help the Philippines step up its defences in the face of a rising China, as President Benigno Aquino III and President Barack Obama prepared to meet at the White House amid Philippine warnings that “weakness invites aggression”.

Obama’s meeting with Aquino at the Oval Office was scheduled for 2pm on Friday (2am on Saturday in Manila) and expected to last  between one and  one-and-a-half hours, according to Malacañang.

“History shows you that weakness invites aggression and the more we have an ability to defend ourselves, the less we’ll be subject to actual aggression by anybody,” Presidential Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang told reporters.

“Given those strategic directions of both our governments, we are looking at ways to enhance our cooperation to our mutual benefit on the security side. That’s going to be a large focus of the discussion,” Carandang said.

He said the confrontation between the Philippines and China over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) would be discussed at the meeting.

Hours before the Aquino-Obama talks, the top US military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey,  said that during his talks with Aquino on Monday in Manila, he spoke about expanding cooperation with the former US colony beyond recent efforts focused on fighting Islamic insurgents.

The Philippines “has been inward-focused on its internal terrorism and insurgent issues for some time—for decades really—and so [has] a very limited capability to project power or to influence activities around it,” said Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“We think that they need some of that, particularly in maritime security,” Dempsey said.

The United States has already been helping to upgrade the notoriously antiquated Philippine military and Aquino has agreed to let a greater number of US troops rotate—but not set up bases—in the archipelago.

The cooperation comes as the Philippines sees particularly tense relations with China, which has butted heads with a number of its neighbors over territorial disputes in strategic waters.

Friction escalated in April when Chinese and Philippine vessels approached  Panatag  Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), which lies near Luzon. Manila says the rock formation falls within its exclusive economic zone. China claims the shoal along with nearly all of the West Philippine Sea.

Aquino, well regarded by the US government, has raised the profile of the Philippines in Washington through his pledges to tackle corruption and to boost its military relationship with the United States.

Carandang noted that the United States had made “a strategic rebalancing” of its security posture.

“They’re moving their forces into Asia,” he said. “They want to have a larger presence in the Asia-Pacific region because this is where the economic and political center of the world, they say, will shift in the coming decades.”
He said this coincided with Aquino’s desire to develop a “minimum credible deterrent capacity”.
“Over the decades our military capability, particularly our naval capability, has fallen behind that of our neighbors,” Carandang said.

Carandang declined to give specifics on how much military hardware or capability would constitute a minimum credible deterrent capability but said this would include surveillance equipment and an increased ability to patrol the country’s shores more effectively.

He repeated Aquino’s statement that the military hardware the Philippines would acquire would not necessarily come from the United States alone.

But he stressed that the Philippines had no intention of acquiring offensive weapons and that all the military hardware it would acquire would be of a defensive nature.

Carandang said that under no circumstances would Aquino’s talks with Obama include a discussion about the return of US bases to the country or “basing rights”.

Instead, the discussions would likely centre on the United States having greater access to Philippine seaports and airports for use on a “rotational” basis, Carandang said.

“What we’re looking at is a lot more mobile, a lot less permanent and probably a lot more frequent than what we have now,” he said.

Aquino’s visit highlights the Philippines’ growing importance in US strategic thinking as both countries worry about China’s intentions.

“The meeting between President Aquino and President Obama will lay the groundwork for the future of the strategic partnership between the Philippines and the United States,” said Jose Cuisia, the Philippine ambassador in Washington.

Aquino was also to meet senior US lawmakers for “discussions on our bilateral economic and defence cooperation, the shift in the focus of the United States toward the Asia-Pacific and ways to revitalize our alliance,” Cuisia said.

Washington’s “rebalancing” of forces to the Asia-Pacific region has accelerated under Obama as a response to China’s rapid military modernization and growing assertiveness in that region.

A US official said Washington saw Aquino as a leader who is “trying to do the right thing” to tackle the corruption, cronyism and red tape that have held back the economy of his nation of more than 90 million people.

No new bases are envisioned under the US plan, although 2,500 US troops will rotate through and train in Darwin, Australia. Any new arrangements with the Philippines would be smaller than the Australian program, officials said.

Asked if former US facilities on Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base were under consideration, Dempsey said: “I wouldn’t say specifically Subic and Clark, although they are obvious locations were we to increase our exercise and rotational presence.”

After high-level bilateral security and diplomatic talks in late April, the Obama administration pledged to increase its annual foreign military sales program to the Philippines to $30 million, about three times the level of the 2011 programme.

“We’ve been working with the Philippines on military modernisation for 12 or 13 years, very intensively,” said Walter Lohman, a Southeast Asia expert at Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “The only thing that has changed is the urgency of this and the seriousness the Philippines has shown under the Aquino administration,” he said.

The United States is formally neutral on West Philippine Sea territorial issues. But Washington’s promotion of multilateral diplomacy to handle the disputes clashes with China’s insistence on bilateral talks with its weaker neighbours.

“We want to empower international rules of the road in maritime security, not to isolate any one nation or to take a position on a claim—for instance, in the [West Philippine Sea]—but rather to make sure that claims can be resolved peacefully,” said a senior US official.

Aquino, the son of democracy heroes, has emerged as a willing partner of the United States as it looks to build a stronger presence in Southeast Asia.

Full text of White House statement on Obama-Aquino meeting

June 10, 2012
Today, the President met with Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III in the Oval Office.  The Philippines is a close friend and a key economic and security partner for the United States.  The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening the bilateral relationship.  The U.S.-Philippines partnership is based on our shared history, democratic values, and mutual interests.  It is rooted in our bilateral alliance, which has contributed to the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region for over 60 years.  Both leaders reaffirmed their mutual commitment to the peace and security of the region and to the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.
The Presidents reviewed recent progress made in enhancing bilateral cooperation since their previous meeting at the East Asia Summit in November.  They welcomed the outcomes of the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue and the first ever “2+2” ministerial consultation in April, including the commitments on regional strategic issues, security and economic cooperation, and supporting the rule of law.
President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. Government’s support for Philippine efforts to build a minimum credible defense posture, as evidenced by our transfer of a second U.S. Coast Guard Cutter to the Philippine Navy, support for the Philippine National Coast Watch System, and the growing number of bilateral exercises and training programs.
The Presidents agreed to build on our successful security cooperation on counterterrorism by expanding efforts to enhance joint military capabilities and interoperability in humanitarian assistance, as well as in the areas of disaster relief, maritime security, and maritime domain awareness.  President Obama recognized President Aquino’s commitment to peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and to ensuring a peaceful and prosperous future for Mindanao.
The leaders acknowledged the importance of a strong economic relationship to both sides, and committed to redouble efforts to bolster and deepen efforts to expand bilateral trade and promote greater trade and economic integration in the Asia Pacific.  In particular, President Obama noted the positive trade dialogue taking place under the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and the importance of expanding bilateral trade in key agricultural products of interest to both countries.  
The President welcomed President Aquino’s commitment to the Partnership for Growth as a catalyzing joint effort to promote anti-corruption and rule of law, improved fiscal performance and regulatory quality, and inclusive economic growth.  They agreed to continue to push for progress on good governance and transparency in the Open Government Partnership and through implementation of the Philippines Millennium Challenge Corporation compact grant.  They also welcomed the signing of a Science and Technology agreement that will help boost innovation by facilitating collaborative scientific activities and promoting the exchange of ideas, information, skills and technology.
The President underscored the importance of the long and close ties between the people of the United States and the Philippines, as well as the significant contributions our people have made to each other’s security, prosperity and culture.  They each pledged to continue to deepen those ties through continued educational and cultural exchanges, and welcomed the founding of the U.S.-Philippines Society to further build bilateral ties.
President Aquino welcomed the renewed U.S. strategic focus and rebalancing in the Asia Pacific Region, as well as active participation in the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting and other regional fora.  President Obama thanked President Aquino for his role as U.S.-ASEAN Dialogue Partner in facilitating the United States’ participation in the East Asia Summit for the first time last year.
President Aquino briefed the President on regional developments, including the situation in the South China Sea.  They underscored the importance of the principles of ensuring freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce.   They expressed firm support for a collaborative diplomatic process among claimants to resolve territorial disputes in a manner consistent with international law and without coercion or the use of force. President Obama conveyed his support for the ongoing efforts within ASEAN to reach an agreement with China on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea that creates a rules-based framework for managing and regulating the conduct of parties, including preventing and managing disputes.
Finally, President Obama and President Aquino committed to maintaining the intensified pace and scope of our bilateral engagement established over the last two years through sustained strategic dialogue and joint activities, in the spirit of mutual respect and mutual responsibility.

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