US President Barack Obama is now in Manila, the last stop of his Asia tour, after his visit to Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. This is Obama’s first visit to the Philippines in more than six years since he took office in January 2009. He hopes to reiterate and reinforce the US “pivot to Asia” strategy that has been struggling to gain footing.
Against the background of a drastically changing geopolitical landscape in the Asia-Pacific region with growing Chinese influence, the US is keen to rally its Asian allies to maintain and promote its status as an Asia-Pacific country.
The Philippines is among the most aggressive claimants of the South China Sea, and Washington keeps reassuring this state, which is a stronghold on the “first island chain” around China.
Apart from counterbalancing an increasingly assertive China by intensifying strategic cooperation with and pledging economic assistance to China’s surrounding countries, Washington also attempts to remold its image in the mind of its Asian allies, in particular when its European allies are losing confidence in the world’s greatest power because of the Ukraine crisis.
Now that London is behaving half-heartedly, Paris and Berlin have shown reluctance to impose harsher sanctions against Moscow over its integration of Crimea, Obama intends to exhibit his firm commitment to reassuring all allied nations by aiding the Philippines, a treaty ally that is both economically and militarily backward.
Defense and security issues are dominating Obama’s journey in Manila and economic concerns are another area on his agenda.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US Ambassador Philip Goldberg on Monday morning signed a 10-year deal, allowing a bigger US military presence in the Philippines and better access of US troops to the country’s military bases, ports and airfields.
The Philippines was once home to two of the largest US naval and air force bases outside the continental US territory till the early 1990s. Now in light of China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, the White House is sparing no effort to beef up its military presence in one of the critical links around Beijing.
More than 100 left-wing activists demonstrated at the US embassy in Manila to oppose Obama’s visit and the military accord on April 23, despite the expectations from the Philippine military, business sector and local media for more US military equipment including advanced ships and aircraft .But it should be noted that the small-scale protest is a routine affair and therefore Aquino’s government is unlikely to pay special heed to it.
Also on the agenda for Obama’s Manila visit is economic cooperation and financial assistance.
The New York Times commented that given the wide spectrum of security difficulties the US is facing in Asia, promoting trading collaboration might be the best way for Obama to build credibility in his “rebalancing toward Asia” policy.
There is no denying that economic interaction with its Asian partners will help increase the US capital export.
Nevertheless, for the Philippines enmeshed in long-term economic debilitation, the number of cooperation programs the White House will offer may be quite limited.
Manila is in no way comparable to Tokyo or Seoul, the most vital economic pillars among the US’ Asian allies, a pragmatic Washington will not invest too much.
Obama’s pledges of economic packages, if there are any, will be more a show than substantial assistance.
Consequently, the Philippines will get little practical interests except some psychological comfort from its US ally, since Obama also refrains from drawing another red line on possible military action against Beijing.
Washington has deliberately been scheming to attract Manila to its geopolitical game in the Southeast Asia in a bid to continue the territorial rows over the South China Sea and counterbalance China’s rise.
Compiled by Global Times reporter Wang Xiaonan, based on an interview with Ji Qiufeng, professor of international relations at the School of History, Nanjing University.
Philippine pact gives US access to air, sea bases
Obama backs Manila’s decision to seek int’l arbitration of territorial dispute
Washington secured a key part of its pivot to the Asia-Pacific region with a decadelong defense pact with Manila on Monday, as observers said the militarization of the region is playing with fire and makes a diplomatic settlement much harder.
The US-Philippine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was signed on Monday at the Defense Ministry in Manila shortly before Obama’s arrival on the last stop of his four-country Asian tour.
The pact gives US forces temporary access to selected bases and allows them to base fighter jets and ships in the Philippines, as “part of a rebalancing of US resources towards fast-growing Asia and the Pacific”, Reuters said.
The US goal in Asia, Obama said on Monday, was not to contain or counter a rising China. However he “backed Manila’s efforts” to submit territorial problems with China to adjudication by international arbitration, AFP said.
The rhetoric has been charged recently between Beijing and Manila as the Philippines tried to boost its claims over China’s Huangyan Island and Ren’ai Reef in the South China Sea and sought greater involvement from Washington.
“Manila’s efforts have dovetailed with Washington’s intention to shift to the economically booming Asian region, partly as a counterweight to China’s growing clout,” Associated Press said.
Rommel Banlaoi, an analyst at Manila’s Center for Intelligence and National Security, told Reuters that relations between the Philippines and China will deteriorate further as China “is averse to any Philippine government initiative to involve the US in its security agenda”.
“We are strengthening our relationship with the US at the expense of our relationship with China,” he said.
Jia Duqiang, a Southeast Asian studies expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the pact serves as a component of “the Obama administration’s ongoing plans to militarize issues that are rumbling in the Asia-Pacific region”, and this is “actually playing with fire”.
“We have seen Obama press the need for defense cooperation with US allies in almost every stop of his Asian trip, which illustrates Washington’s unchanged double approach in its dealings with China — dialogue plus coercion,” Jia said.
Responding to the pact on Monday, Beijing called for “relevant countries” to build more bridges to facilitate trust, regional peace, stability and prosperity.
“The US has said on different occasions that Washington has no intention of coercive moves against China, and it is necessary to examine the follow-up remarks and actions,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a news conference in Beijing on Monday.
The defense deal was signed and announced “when tensions between China and its neighbors have been rising” and it is “the biggest policy achievement” of Obama’s trip to Asia, the Washington Post commented.
The Philippines was an American colony from 1898 to 1946, and their defense treaty, signed in 1951, is the oldest US treaty alliance in Asia. During the Cold War the US had a large military presence in the Philippines at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station.
But a greater US presence in the Philippines is a heated topic. Fiery debates in the Philippine Senate ultimately led to closing Subic Bay Naval Station, the last permanent US base in the country, in 1992.
Qu Xing, president of the China Institute of International Studies, warned that rising tension concerning the South China Sea has radicalized public sentiment in some countries, which makes rational discussion over the issue at the diplomatic table “much harder”.
Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said a number of China-related remarks made by prominent US figures, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who visited China earlier this month, have sent a clear signal that “Washington is backing the Philippines”.
“These remarks run counter to the official US position that it does not take a position over the South China Sea issue,” Wu said.
Obama said at a news conference on Monday, “We welcome China’s peaceful rise. We have a constructive relationship with China.”
But Jia from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Philippines, more so than Japan or Vietnam, has fully endorsed the US strategy of containing China.
“Beijing should never have high expectations of Washington taking a fair approach over the South China Sea issue,” Jia said. “The tension in the South China Sea will probably worsen because Washington is determined more than ever to contain China in this regard,” Jia said.
– By Zhang Yunbi China Daily
Is it for containing China? This is a question that will be haunting the whole of East Asia during US President Obama’s ongoing trip to this area. Tokyo and Manila hope it is, but the facts will prove it is only their wishful thinking.
Obama’s four-country visit should have been done last October. But it was delayed because of the debt ceiling crisis and government shutdown. When voices about the US declining are rising dramatically, the top priority of Obama’s trip is to reassure its Asian allies to keep their faith in Washington.
Washington keeps declaring that it doesn’t pick sides in terms of the Sino-Japanese and Sino-Philippine territorial disputes. But it explicitly shows favor for Tokyo and Manila when frictions in these areas take place.
Washington tries to kill two birds with one stone by supporting its allies while avoiding irritating China, a delicate way to maintain the balance between business profits and political influence.
Obama putting off the October trip has already sent a signal that Asian allies must make way for US domestic affairs.
While in order to revive its declining economy, the US depends much more on China than these allies. Washington cannot bear a strategic confrontation of containment and counter-containment with China.
China’s Asia policy keeps holding the strategic initiative with restraint. Washington and its allies’ arrangements to contain China will probably end up in vain. They have no chips to bargain with China. In fact, both the US and its allies are calculating how to benefit from China’s growth.
China’s rise has become the biggest variable in the Asia-Pacific strategic framework. China shows to the world that it is committed to utilizing its power in a peaceful and restrained manner, and the US has also basically recognized a stronger China.
These two new developments are shaping a new Asia-Pacific order during China’s rise. There will be a new balance in this area, and no countries are able to break it.
Obama’s rebalance toward Asia is a rearrangement of the US presence in this area to maximize its interests. But the US is not powerful or ambitious enough to contain China in this area, or even strangle China before it rises to be a global power.
It is just an illusion for some Asian countries to contain China. In fact, there are many controversies concerning China’s rise within the US-led alliance.
Japan and the Philippines want a tough stand against China, but are also worried that Asia might become the victim of a Cold War-like confrontation between the US and China.
Containing China is a plausible option for several Asian countries, but it will be proven impossible in the real Asian geopolitical game.
Obama should know that his actions and remarks during this trip will keep making headlines, but he had better not stir up a situation that is even beyond his own control.
Global Times 2014-4-23 23:53:17