US vow to defend PH in feud with China hangs over Obama visit
MANILA, Philippines — Will the United States, the Philippines’ only defense treaty ally, come to its rescue if the row over portions of the South China Sea escalates into an armed conflict with Beijing?
Washington has expressed support for Manila amid its raging territorial dispute with China. But the question still begs to be answered more categorically when US President Barack Obama wraps up his four-nation Asian trip in Manila where he’s expected to seal a deal allowing more American troops on Philippine soil.
Obama is set to arrive at 1:30 p.m. on Monday (April 28) in Manila, the last stop of a seven-day Asian swing that also brought him to Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. Hounding him throughout the trip were questions on how he would reassure allies of Washington’s support amid China’s expansionism and growing military and economic influence in the region.
It’s the same question that will confront him when he and President Benigno Aquino face the media in a joint press conference in Malacanang at 3:25 p.m.
The Philippine and US panels have reportedly completed the Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation, which would provide American troops greater access to military bases around the country.
But on the eve of Obama’s arrival, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said the Palace was still awaiting word from the Philippine panel on whether both sides had reached an agreement. As of 12:30 p.m. when he held his regular Sunday briefing on radio, he said both panels were still conducting their respective “consultations” on the proposed agreement.
Prior to facing reporters, Obama and Aquino will sit down for an expanded bilateral meeting.
“As he meets with President Obama, President Aquino will convey the country’s vision for an enduring and strategic Philippine-US partnership that will be characterized by modern, mature, and forward-looking bilateral relations,” Coloma said.
The Palace spokesperson said the partnership would center on “three major fronts: strengthening political and security cooperation, expanding trade and investments, tourism and development cooperation, and on deepening people-to-people ties.”
Coloma did not say exactly how the new defense agreement with the US would help the Philippines in its territorial conflict with China.
“Our view is that our good coordination with them would continue, and so will their commitment to be one with our country in the aspect of national defense based on the existing treaty,” he said in Filipino.
Coloma was referring to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which, the Palace considers as the foundation of the new defense agreement with Washington. Critics like Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago believe the new deal required scrutiny by the Senate.
But questions remain as to whether Manila could invoke the treaty in case of an armed confrontation with Beijing over the disputed Scarborough Shoal or the Spratly group of islands.
Still, Article V of the treaty states that “an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”
During his visit to Japan, which is locked in its own territorial dispute with China, Obama said: “Our commitment to Japan’s security is absolute and article five [of the security treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku islands,”
“We don’t take a position on final sovereignty on the Senkakus but historically they’ve been administered by Japan and should not be subject to change unilaterally,” he added.
From the airport, Obama will proceed to the Rizal Park to offer a wreath, part of the protocol for state visits. Anti-American protesters are expected to show up during Obama’s brief visit, and Coloma appealed for them to keep the rallies “orderly and within the bounds of the law.”
Coloma said 300 guests had been invited to the state dinner, which Aquino would host at the Rizal Hall of Malacañang at 7 p.m.
The following day, Obama will be at Fort Bonifacio for a speech and to meet with soldiers and war veterans. He is set to fly out of Manila at 11:55 a.m.
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