The Philippines and the U.S. signed an agreement that will boost the American troop presence in the Southeast Asian nation, as President Barack Obama said America’s strategic rebalancing to Asia isn’t aimed at combating a rising China.
“Our goal is not to counter China, our goal is not to contain China,” Obama said at a briefing today in Manila, hours after the 10-year defense agreement was signed. “Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of maritime disputes.”
Philippine President Benigno Aquino is strengthening military ties with countries like the U.S. as it is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China over islands and shoals in the South China Sea. Obama said the U.S., which is treaty-bound to defend the Philippines in case of attack, is “very supportive” of its efforts to seek international arbitration to resolve the matter, a process China has rejected.
“This move is very much consistent with Obama’s commitment to enhance America’s strategic presence in Asia in the face of China’s growing power,” said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, of the Philippine defense agreement. The pact will confirm China’s belief “that the U.S. pivot into the Asia-Pacific is about trying to contain it.”
The accord -- signed by Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg -- spells out the requirement of Philippine sovereignty. It prevents the permanent stationing of U.S. troops and the U.S. having bases or weapons of mass destruction in the country, according to a draft of the details released earlier this month. U.S. access to Philippine military facilities will be at the Philippines’ invitation.
“The enhanced defense cooperation agreement serves as a recognition by both sides that there’s even more we can do together to support the alliance,” Goldberg said today at the signing ceremony.
The size, duration and timing of U.S. troop rotations will be worked out with the Philippines under the scope of the 1951 mutual defense treaty, Evan Medeiros, the U.S. National Security Council Asia affairs senior director, told reporters yesterday in Malaysia. There are no specifics on rotations within the framework agreement, and Subic Bay may be one of the sites used under the pact, he said.
The pact will allow for the construction of new facilities or the upgrade of existing ones in Philippine military camps and the “storage and prepositioning” of defense, humanitarian and disaster response equipment, the Philippine foreign affairs department said today in a statement.
Obama said the Philippines is a “vital partner” on maritime security matters and the U.S. isn’t trying to reclaim old bases in Philippines. The hope is to “work cooperatively” with China, the world’s second-largest economy, he said.
Obama said his talks during a four-nation Asian tour that also took in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, which each have territorial disputes with China, indicated that all wanted to resolve the issues through dialogue.
“It’s inevitable that China is going to be a dominant power in this region, just by sheer size,” he said. “The question is whether other countries in the region are also able to succeed and prosper on their own terms.”
Chinese Coast Guard ships tried to drive away a Philippine supply ship in Ayungin shoal on March 29, before the Philippines filed evidence to a United Nations arbitration body handling its complaint against China. China has insisted on using bilateral talks to resolve South China Sea disputes.
The defense agreement is disturbing and may lead to a more assertive or “reckless” government in Manila that will upset Obama’s rebalancing to Asia, according to a commentary published by Xinhua News Agency today.
“By striking the defense deal with the United States at this moment despite domestic opposition, the Aquino administration has made its intention clear: to confront China with U.S. backing,” the article by Xinhua writer Shang Jun said. “An emboldened Aquino would make an amicable solution to the territorial disputes more difficult, if not impossible, and intensify regional tensions.”
Asked whether the U.S. is seeking to contain China, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a briefing in Beijing that it “should wait and see what the U.S. says and does.” The two countries have broad common interests in the region, Qin said.
China shouldn’t be concerned about the agreement, which is focused on training and disaster relief operations, Aquino said at the briefing alongside Obama. The Philippines lacks the military muscle to defend its territorial claims against China, which spends 47 times more on defense.
“We aren’t a threat militarily to any country,” he said. “We don’t even have presently a single fighter aircraft in our inventory.”
White of Australian National University said it is questionable “whether the U.S. would be willing to endanger its relationship with China in order to support the Philippines over its territorial disputes.”
“Simply signing more agreements to base more U.S. forces in the Philippines doesn’t in itself resolve Obama’s big question, which is how far America is willing to go in confronting China to support allies like the Philippines,” he said.
China has accused the Philippines of illegally occupying Ayungin Shoal, where Filipino troops have been stationed after a naval ship ran aground in 1999. The Philippines and Vietnam reject China’s map of the sea, first published in the 1940s, as a basis for joint exploration of oil and gas.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is seeking a code of conduct for the South China Sea. The talks have made little progress since China agreed last July to start discussions, and China introduced fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.