28 April 2014 Last updated at 10:58
Obama in Asia: Military deal tops Philippine agenda
US President Barack Obama says that a new US-Philippine military pact will promote stability in the region.
The deal, signed in Manila hours before Mr Obama touched down, allows a bigger US military presence in the country.
Mr Obama said the deal was not intended to contain China, with whom Manila is embroiled in a bitter territorial row.
But he backed Manila's move to seek UN arbitration over its maritime dispute with Beijing.
"Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of international disputes," he said.
Shortly after arriving, Mr Obama held talks with President Benigno Aquino and was later to attend a state dinner. Manila is the final stop of the US president's four-nation Asia tour.
'Dialogue, not intimidation'
The 10-year military deal was signed by Philippine Defence Minister Voltaire Gazmin and US Ambassador Philip Goldberg on Monday morning.
This agreement is all about China, with whom the Philippine government has long-running territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Until 1992 the headquarters of the US Seventh Fleet used to be in Subic Bay but this new agreement is not about permanent bases - rather there will be a greater presence of US forces as ships and aircraft rotate through the Philippines on specific deployments.
It is a powerful signal to Beijing both of the Philippines' desire to protect its interests - it is also looking to purchase a third Hamilton-Class cutter from the US coast guard - and of Washington's continued desire to step up its ability to project military force throughout the region.
President Barack Obama insists that Washington is not seeking to contain China. But the US pivot to Asia in the face of a more assertive China's modernisation of its armed forces means that there is inevitably a military dimension to their regional competition.
Under the agreement, the US will have better access to military bases, ports and airfields. US troops would rotate through these facilities and engage in joint training, officials said.
Mr Obama said the US was not planning to rebuild old bases or construct new ones under the security pact.
"We'll work together to build the Philippines' defence capabilities and work with other nations to promote regional stability such as in the South China Sea," he said.
In a statement, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario described it as "milestone in our shared history as enduring treaty allies".
"The EDCA [Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement] elevates to a higher plane of engagement our already robust defence alliance," he said.
However, the presence of foreign troops is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, a former US colony.
Anti-US activists who say the deal will not benefit the Philippines and harms its sovereignty were expected to protest during Mr Obama's visit.
The US used to have large bases in the Philippines but these were closed in the early 1990s. US troops have also been active in the southern Philippines, where al-Qaeda-linked militants are based.
In recent months, however, Washington and Manila have moved to strengthen ties again, as the Philippine relationship with China has deteriorated amid a more assertive stance from Beijing on its territorial claims.
Map of South China Sea
China claims a U-shaped swathe of the South China Sea - an area that includes territories that several South East Asia nations say belong to them.
In 2012, ships from China and the Philippines were involved in a long stand-off at the Scarborough Shoal.
More recently, the Philippines has accused China of blockading sailors stationed aboard a navy ship that has been grounded on a disputed reef for years.
Manila has initiated action against China on the territorial issue at the UN court, although China says it will not take part in the process.
"Both President Obama and I share the conviction that territorial and maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific region should be settled peacefully based on international law," Mr Aquino said at a joint news conference.
The US president has already visited Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. He is not visiting Beijing on this occasion.
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Obama in the Philippines: ‘Our Goal Is Not to Contain China’
Emily Rauhala @emilyrauhala
April 28, 2014
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement took eight months to negotiate but mere days to anger Beijing, which sees U.S. involvement in East Asia as interference despite President Obama's insistence the goal is not to "contain" China
This is not about China. That has been the theme of Barack Obama’s four-nation trip to East Asia. Yet China loomed large over stops in Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. And in the Philippines today, China was front and center.
On Monday morning, local time, the U.S. and the Philippines signed a 10-year pact that will give U.S. planes, warships and troops more access to the archipelagic nation. The U.S. will not re-establish a permanent base, but will rotate troops through. The deal, officially called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, took eight months of negotiation, and gives some substance to the Obama Administration’s “pivot” to Asia.
At a joint press conference in Manila, President Obama insisted the deal was not about thwarting China’s rise. “Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected, and that includes in the area of international disputes,” he said.
His counterpart, President Benigno S. Aquino III, said the agreement was about deepening U.S.-Philippine ties and would promote “regional peace and security.”
China begs to differ. Locked in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Japan and others, Beijing sees U.S. involvement in East Asia as unwelcome interference. In an editorial published less than an hour after the agreement was officially signed, state-backed newswire Xinhua blasted the pact, calling the Philippines a “troublemaker in the South China Sea” and warning the U.S. that its plans may backfire.
“Given that the Philippines is at a bitter territorial row with China, the move is particularly disturbing as it may embolden Manila in dealing with Beijing,” it read.
The agreement is no less contentious within the Philippines. The country has a long and complicated history with the U.S., particularly the U.S. armed forces. The Philippines spent 300 years as a Spanish colony before being “liberated” by the U.S. in 1898. What followed was a brutal Philippine-American War and the U.S. colonization of the islands. When the Philippines became independent in 1945, the Americans left behind massive military bases — and with them a well-documented legacy of rights abuses and environmental problems.
More than a decade of antimilitary activism led to the closure, in 1992, of U.S. bases. But the Americans never fully withdrew. U.S. forces have maintained a small but continuous presence, conducting training exercises and, since 2002, antiterrorist operations as part of the so-called global war on terror. For a dedicated block of activists, the fact that the U.S. military still has boots on the ground is tantamount to neocolonialism. Some staged protests outside the U.S. embassy in Manila last week.
“I think people are angry that this was negotiated behind close doors and made public after it was signed,” says Alex Magno, former professor of political of science at the University of the Philippines, now a political commenter for the Philippine Star. “It is being sold to the public as an enhancement of our national defense [but] Obama tries to tone down that expectation by saying that it is not America’s role to counter China.”
The deal is also under fire from Filipino politicians who see it as a hasty and counterproductive turnaround. In an email reply to questions from TIME, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago blasted the government for signing the pact without input from the Senate and questioned the logic behind the agreement. “The U.S. should not continue to treat [the Philippines] as a satellite state, while aiming to remain on good terms with China,” she wrote. “America cannot have it both ways.”
Since his election in 2010, President Aquino has alternated between reassuring and castigating Beijing. In a 2012 interview, Aquino told TIME that U.S. military aid “helps us address our needs without giving [our neighbors] any sense of added nervousness.” (One of the unnamed neighbors, of course, was China.) He has since become more direct: in a February interview with the New York Times, Aquino compared his country’s plight with the West’s failure to protect Czechoslovakia in 1938 when Hitler demanded land. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough?’” he asked.
At the press conference in Manila on Monday, Aquino once again spoke softly, noting, among other things, that his country does not have a single fighter jet. But he said it with President Obama at his side — a fact that will not be lost on Beijing.
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