Obama's Philippine Warship Tour Keeps Sea Spat in Focus at APEC

  • Philippine vessel took part in standoff with Chinese ships
  • U.S. plans to transfer two more ships to Philippine navy

Philippine sailors stand in front of the Gregorio del Pilar in Manila.

Photographer: Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama’s first stop in Manila was a symbolic one. He toured a naval vessel that has come to represent Philippine resistance to China over the disputed South China Sea, raising the issue of territorial tensions ahead of a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders.

QuickTake Territorial Disputes

China wants the South China Sea to stay off the agenda at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the Philippines, a U.S. ally that has challenged China at an international arbitration tribunal over its sea claims. But given the level of friction over the waterway, some discussion at the meeting is unavoidable, U.S. officials have said. Other claimant states including Vietnam and Malaysia are attending APEC.

Obama opened his Manila trip Tuesday with a visit to the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which is known to many Filipinos for confronting two Chinese surveillance ships in 2012 near a disputed shoal in the Spratly island chain. The vessel is also a symbol of U.S. military support for the Philippines as it got its start in the U.S. Coast Guard before it was decommissioned in 2011 and transferred to the Southeast Asian nation.

“My visit here underscores our shared commitment to the security of the waters of this region and to the freedom of navigation,” Obama said on the dock after touring the ship, with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin standing nearby.

Obama boarding the Philippine warship is the latest signal of U.S. push back as China asserts its claim to more than 80 percent of one of the world’s busiest waterways. The tour came weeks after a U.S. warship sailed near one of the artificial islands China has built in the sea, with the U.S. seeking to show it doesn’t recognize the feature qualifies for any protected waters under international law.

The U.S. has “an ironclad commitment” to defend its ally the Philippines, Obama said. As he toured the Gregorio del Pilar, U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer the USS Fitzgerald was docked in Manila to provide security for the APEC summit. Obama announced the U.S. would transfer two more ships to the Philippine navy.

Building Islands

China’s claims, based on a 1940s map that gives only vague coordinates, overlap with those of five other nations in the region. To better assert control, China has reclaimed 2,900 acres of land and is putting in runways capable of landing military aircraft.

Obama may have the chance to raise the issue with President Xi Jinping, who also arrived Tuesday at APEC. “I’m confident that it will be the subject of prominent discussion among the leaders that are gathered,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. Obama and Xi had a “candid” discussion during the Chinese president’s visit to Washington in September, Obama said.

Freedom of Navigation

“I reiterated the right of all countries to freedom of navigation and overflight and to unimpeded commerce,” Obama said at a Sept. 25 press conference. “I indicated that the United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows. I conveyed to President Xi our significant concerns over land reclamation, construction and the militarization of disputed areas.”

Xi said in Washington that China had no intention to militarize the South China Sea. China has said its land reclamation, alongside the building of structures including light houses, is in part for civilian purposes and to provide services to ships from other countries transiting the area.

Obama met recently-installed Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the sidelines of APEC and said the two had an “excellent discussion” around supporting freedom of navigation. While neither country is a South China Sea claimant they agreed “these issues need to be resolved” by the rule of law, Obama said. He invited Turnbull to visit Washington.

The South China Sea has come up in both Republican and Democratic presidential candidate debates. Republican candidates Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio pointed to China as an emerging security threat. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said in the Democratic debate that China’s actions in the South China Sea present “challenges” to the U.S.

Fastest Ship

The BRP Gregorio del Pilar is the fastest ship in the Philippine navy. After its transfer, the Philippines renamed the ship after one of the nation’s youngest generals who fought during the Philippine-American war at the end of the 19th century.

The Philippines is the largest recipient of U.S. maritime security assistance and will receive a record $79 million of the fiscal year 2015 funds allocated toward Southeast Asian maritime capabilities, according to a White House fact sheet. Obama on Tuesday announced that the U.S. plans to transfer two more decommissioned ships to the Philippine navy.

The U.S. Coast Guard keeps its ships for an average of more than 40 years, much longer than the navy. Previously named the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, the ship was commissioned in 1967 and used in the Vietnam War. The Coast Guard is in the process of replacing its aging Hamilton-class fleet with national security cutters. It has sold other ships from the fleet to Bangladesh and Nigeria.

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