MANILA: US President Barack Obama said a new military pact signed with the Philippines yesterday granting a larger presence for US forces would bolster the Southeast Asian country’s maritime security, but was not aimed at countering China’s growing military might.
The agreement, which will have an initial 10-year term, was touted as the highlight of Obama’s first visit to the Philippines, the United States’ oldest ally in the region.
It sets the framework for a beefed-up rotation of US troops, ships and warplanes through the Philippines, part of a rebalancing of US resources towards fast-growing Asia and the Pacific.
But China interprets the move as an attempt to contain its increasing military capability and embolden Manila in a decades-long territorial dispute with Beijing.
“The goal for this agreement is to build Philippine capacity to engage in training, engage in coordination, not simply to deal with issues of maritime security, but also to enhance our capabilities so that if there is a natural disaster that takes place we can respond quickly,” Obama told a joint news conference in Manila after talks with President Benigno Aquino.
“Our goal is not to counter China, our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected, and that includes the area of maritime disputes.”
He reiterated Washington’s support for Manila’s move to seek international arbitration over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, an important shipping route that is believed to be rich in energy resources.
The Philippines is the last stop on a week-long tour of Asia partly aimed at reassuring US allies that Washington remains committed to its strategic “pivot” to the region.
Obama said all four countries he has visited, including Japan, which has its own dispute with China over tiny islands in the East China Sea, were committed to seeking a peaceful resolution of territorial issues.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, a claim that overlaps with those of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
China has rejected international arbitration, preferring a bilateral route to solving the jurisdictional disputes.
Rising regional tensions were highlighted by a commentary from China’s state news agency Xinhua criticising the pact.
“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,” the commentary said.
“A more assertive or even reckless Manila would stoke regional tensions and in turn upset Obama’s policy of rebalancing.”
Aquino said China “shouldn’t be concerned” about the new agreement, which is aimed at increasing joint military training, especially for disaster relief operations.
“We are not a threat militarily to any country, we don’t even have ... presently a single fighter aircraft in our inventory,” Aquino said, adding his country had “legitimate needs” to protect its 36,000km coastline.
“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,” Aquino said at a joint news conference. “We affirm that arbitration is an open, friendly and peaceful approach to seeking a just and durable solution.”
US was not seeking to rebuild old military bases or construct new ones under the agreement, said Obama, who was greeted with a 21-gun salute upon his arrival at the presidential palace in the former US colony.
Dozens of anti-US protesters shouted slogans and waved banners to protest against his visit outside the palace. US had maintained two military bases northwest of Manila, including Subic Bay, which was once its biggest overseas naval base, until the Philippine Senate ordered US troops to leave in 1991. Eight years later, the Senate approved an agreement providing for temporary visits by US forces, allowing the staging of joint military exercises.
Officials said the new security accord did not specify the number of US troops and equipment to be deployed in the country, with those details to be discussed separately by the two governments.