ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
US, Philippines come closer on maritime security
Obama met at the White House with President Benigno Aquino III on Friday afternoon (Saturday morning in Manila) against the backdrop of a two-month standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels at a disputed shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
China’s assertive behaviour in those waters has served to bolster Manila’s 60-year alliance with Washington, which thrived during the Cold War but ebbed after nationalist political forces prompted the closure of American military bases in 1992.
Obama thanked Aquino for what he called “excellent cooperation” on economic, defence and other issues.
Aquino earlier declared the allies were at a “new juncture in our relations”.
The security and military cooperation with the Philippines “is a reminder to everybody that the United States considers itself, and is, a Pacific power,” Obama said.
Aquino did not refer specifically to the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal conflict with China in his remarks to the press, but said the meeting with Obama “deepened and strengthened a very long relationship we have, especially as we face the challenges that are before both our countries.”
Despite the absence of an explicit statement that the United States would come to the Philippines’ defence if attacked by China, Aquino said the steady flow of high-level US government and military officials was part of the “playbook” meant to send “a very clear message precisely what the relationship [between the United States and the Philippines] is”.
“[The United States is] very, very serious about the Mutual Defence Treaty, and that they have communicated the same in so many forums,” Aquino said.
The United States and the Philippines are bound by the Mutual Defence Treaty. The Philippines had been seeking a clear public statement that the United States would come to its defence should it face attack.
The United States had restricted itself to saying it would honour its obligations under the treaty. No further statement was forthcoming Friday, and neither leader mentioned China.
But the White House later said the leaders “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,” it said.
US interest in peaceful resolution of disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
“The United States has been consistent in that we oppose the use of force or coercion by any claimant to advance its claims, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely,” Clinton said.
Clinton said the United States and the Philippines were working closely to increase information and intelligence exchanges and coordination on maritime domain issues. She announced the United States would support the construction and training of a National Coast Watch Center to help the Philippines monitor its coastline.
Aquino welcomed the US efforts toward ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Speaking to reporters, Aquino said Clinton’s presence during the 60th anniversary of the Mutual Defence Treaty between the United States and the
Philippines indicated the US commitment to the agreement.
Aquino said the Philippines did not mean to get the United States embroiled in war in the Asia-Pacific region, but he made it clear that US backing helped strengthen the Philippines’ hand in the Scarborough dispute with China.
Last month, the United States handed to the Philippines a second Coast Guard cutter following the transfer last year of a similar 45-year-old vessel. The first cutter has since become a flagship in the Philippine Navy as the country increasingly focuses on its maritime security. A close US ally, Japan, is also reportedly preparing to supply the Philippines with 10 smaller, new patrol vessels.
While the Obama administration has worked to enhance ties with the Philippines, the United States is very mindful of its need to get along with China to prevent their strategic rivalry from spiraling into confrontation. Washington is careful to stress that while it supports efforts of Southeast Asian nations to develop a code of conduct with China on managing disputes in the West Philippine Sea, it has no position on the conflicting territorial claims there that involve a half-dozen nations.
Last month saw a rare stop by a US submarine at Subic Bay, location of a former American naval base that faces the West Philippine Sea. And in the past week, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta visited emerging strategic ally India and Vietnam —another West Philippine Sea claimant at odds with China and forging closer relations with the United States. Panetta announced that 60 per cent of the US Navy’s fleet would be deployed to the Pacific by 2020, up from about 50 per cent now.
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