Obama’s Trip to the Philippines: A Touchy Last Stop
April 30, 2014
The last stop of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to four Asian countries this week is perhaps the most controversial. His visit comes at a time of heightened tensions between the Philippines and China, which in recent months have demonstrated their commitment to defend their competing claims in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The visit is also seen as demonstrating the United States’ commitment to a “rebalance to Asia” after Obama cancelled his trip to the region last year due to mounting domestic problems, particularly the U.S. government shutdown.
In his speech delivered at the American Cemetery in Manila on April 29, Obama clarified that he is in the Philippines to reaffirm the enduring alliance of the Philippines and the United States. He highlighted the heroic struggle of Filipino and American soldiers at Bataan during World War II, making reference to the infamous “Bataan Death March” which killed thousands of Filipino and American soldiers.
While his speech focused on how Filipino and American veterans are an inspiration to all, he did not fail to mention the need to uphold international laws and preserve freedom of navigation at sea – issues that no doubt refer to the current territorial dispute between China and the Philippines. Obama also made reference to the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), a pact signed by the Philippines and the United States in 1951 that explicitly expresses these two countries’ common determination to defend each other against any form of aggression. History tells us that the 1951 MDT was signed to prevent aggression and damage in a post-World War II world while preventing the spread of communism to the Philippines. More than half a century after its signing, there have been ups and downs in relations, with U.S. bases having been denied renewal in 1992, but a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) signed in 1998 allowed U.S. troops to rotate through for training and support purposes, particularly in the southern Philippines. Under the terms of the MDT and the VFA, a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed between the U.S. and the Philippines just before President Obama arrived in the country. Throughout the years, while the average Filipino citizen is very well disposed to U.S. forces, there are those who protest such agreements as manifestations of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines.
The EDCA is a promising agreement for both the Philippines and the United States. It will benefit the Philippines primarily through the establishment of infrastructure and facilities that will actually be owned by the Philippine government. At the same time, the U.S. will benefit through on-the-ground training for U.S. troops visiting the Philippines under this agreement. Both nations emphasized that this does not involve “bases” since all facilities will be in Philippine military installations, and the Filipino base commanders will have access to them.
Throughout his visit, Obama took care to assert that it is not in the U.S. interest to contain China, but rather to ensure that international rules are followed and cooperation among nations enhanced. In this regard, it was fortuitous that President Obama praised individual members of both the American and Philippine armed forces who were first responders in providing humanitarian assistance in response to the devastation to the Philippines brought by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is indeed one of those areas in which China has been active multilaterally, exercising (in Brunei) in mid-2013 with ASEAN countries and seven other of their dialogue partners. And just last week in Beijing, China, the United States, and other Asia-Pacific countries, including the Philippines, signed a maritime security agreement called the Code on Unexpected Encounters at Sea (CUES), which aims to prevent maritime tensions from flaring into conflict.
The importance of both China and the Philippines for the United States was evident in Obama’s speech. He maintained a balance by not mentioning issues that directly go against China while reiterating that the U.S.’s commitment to defend the Philippines is “ironclad.” Some characterized the United States’ commitment to Japan as stronger than its commitment to the Philippines. However, the real difference lies on the legal status of the territories in question – Japan is the clear administrator of the disputed Senkakus, while in the West Philippine Sea, there is no clarity as to which country is actually in charge of administering the disputed islands and reefs. The fact that disputed territories are not covered by the obligations of the MDT only complicates matters.
There was some effort to broaden the focus beyond security issues, including an emphasis on shared culture (an obsession with basketball, for instance) and the family ties binding millions of Americans of Filipino heritage to the Philippines. With respect to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), where the Philippines is not currently part of the negotiation round, discussions were reported by President Obama to be limited to “the steps that the Philippines could take to position itself for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” Some discussions of this issue noted both that economic protectionist provisions of the Philippine Constitution make many of the issues difficult and that the U.S. Congress is currently unwilling to endow President Obama with Trade Promotion (“Fast Track”) Authority.
Amid these challenges, Obama’s 24-hour visit served to assure Filipinos that, indeed, they are not alone in facing the activities of a rising power and that there are economic and cultural benefits that bring the two countries together. What remains to be seen is how the United States will live up to its various commitments to its Asian allies vis-à-vis its domestic issues and its own national interests.
Mark Lester Guevarra is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines, and Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative there. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.
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