As President Barack Obama arrived in the Philippines on Monday, the United States announced that it will sign a defense agreement with the island nation that will give American troops, ships and aircraft more access to the Philippines than they’ve had since the last U.S. military base closed here in 1992.
The accord, which was signed by the United States ambassador before Obama touched down, “is the most significant defense agreement that we have concluded with the Philippines in decades,” Evan Medeiros, the administration’s senior director for Asian affairs, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
It had been unclear whether U.S. and Philippines negotiators, who’ve been working on the accord for eight months, would reach agreement before Obama’s visit, the first by a U.S. president since 2003. Signing it will symbolize American support for the Philippines as it confronts China over competing claims to vast stretches of the South China Sea. It will also give Obama something solid to crow about as he returns to Washington Tuesday night.
In an interview with a Philippines media outlet, ABS-CBN News, released Sunday, Obama said the agreement helps reaffirm the “incredible ties” between the U.S. and the Filipino people. But he was careful to note it will not mean new U.S. bases in the Philippines, a move that would rile up nationalists and anti-war demonstrators, some of whom have been protesting in advance Obama’s visit, his first to the Philippines.
“Given the long history between our nations, some Filipinos have questions about what any new defense agreement might mean,” Obama said. “I want to be absolutely clear _ the new defense cooperation agreement that we are negotiating is not about trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases. Rather, any new agreement would give American service members greater access to Filipino facilities, airfields and ports, which would remain under the control of the Philippines.”
Medeiros described the 10-year agreement as a way for the U.S. military to have “enhanced rotation presence” in the islands. “It’s a framework that will allow us to train and to exercise with the armed forces of the Philippines on a range of missions.” As examples, he cited “humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security, countering transnational crime, (and) proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
Relations between the U.S. and Manila soured in 1991, when the Philippines’ senate rejected a long-standing security agreement with the United States and ordered it to leave the Subic Bay naval base, the last of its military installations, the next year. The naval base had been a mainstay of the U.S. Navy’s presence in the Pacific since 1902.
Manila gradually has been wooing the U.S. back, first to help fight Muslim insurgents on the southern island of Mindanao and also to help train and equip the Philippine’s meager military as China elbows its way into the South China Sea.
Beijing and Manila have been locked in a dispute over the Scarborough and Ayungin shoals in the Spratly Islands. To shore up its claim over the latter shoal, the Philippines has housed a handful of marines on a rusting ship, the Sierra Madre, that sits beached on a remote reef.
In response to a question Sunday, Medeiros said that Subic Bay could be one of the facilities used by the U.S. military under the agreement. The facility, which the Philippines converted to a free trade zone after the U.S. left, sits about 120 miles from Scarborough Shoal, where military and fishing boats from China and the Philippines have skirmished in recent years.
Administration officials, however, attempted to stress Sunday that the defense agreement wasn’t aimed at countering Beijing’s military. “We’re not doing this because of China. We’re doing this because we have a longstanding alliance partner,” said Medeiros.
While in Japan as part of his four-nation Asian trip, Obama grabbed attention by stating that the United States would come to Japan’s defense if an enemy attacked islands Tokyo has administrative control over. That statement has prompted questions in Manila about how, under treaty obligations with the Philippines, the United States would respond if China were to attempt to, say, pull the Sierra Madre ship off its disputed reef.
“It will be interesting to see how President Obama refers to the land features that Manila claims in the South China Sea,” said Don Emmerson, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Shorenstein Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. “The presence of a few Philippine marines on the rusting deck of the Sierra Madre is not exactly what one has in mind when one hears the word ‘administration.’”
Neither Obama nor Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III will be signing the defense agreement. That will likely be done Monday morning by U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Phil Goldberg and a Philippines counterpart before Obama arrives, Medeiros said.
While Obama may face some protests in Manila, surveys show that he and the United States are highly regarded by most Filipinos, who are likely to welcome him with customary hospitality. In a column in the Manila Bulletin on Sunday, former Philippines President Fidel V. Ramos jokingly suggested that Obama change his name to “Baracko ‘Bama.”
“Baracko,” he noted, means “macho, maverick, risk taker.”