Philippines President Benigno Aquino meets with President Obama in the White House on June 7, highlighting a reinvigorated U.S.-Philippines relationship amid security concerns in the South China Sea.
Aquino, whose father was in political opposition when assassinated in 1983, is highly regarded by the Obama administration, largely due to his strong stance against corruption. The strategic significance of the Southeast Asian Archipelago has also gained weight as the United States refocuses on the Asia Pacific region, and China’s activities there.
High on the agenda will be discussions on military cooperation. The Philippines has had several territorial confrontations with China in South China Sea, in the Philippines known as the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
The most recent challenge occurred when Chinese vessels stopped a Philippine navy ship from arresting Chinese fishermen deemed to be illegally fishing in Philippine waters.
“The WPS remains a core national interest for the country and diplomatically we are working to ensure that what is ours is ours,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said at the Heritage Foundation in Washington last month.
As signatories to the International Law of the Sea, the Philippines is seeking a “rules based approach” to resolve the issue. However, as with other Asia Pacific nations, it is nervous about China’s intentions and has welcomed increasing U.S. engagement in the region.
In that regard, the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) is likely to be discussed. Rosario indicated last month that the nation of 93 million expects the MDT to include the contested West Philippines Sea.
“It is not clear, however, that Washington agrees with this assessment,” Asia experts Ernest Bower and Prashanth Parameswaran say in a paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
What is clear is that there will be more shared military expertise and defense support from the United States.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the Philippines earlier this month as part of the U.S. strategy to rebalance defense efforts in the region. U.S. military aid to the Philippines is expected to double to $30 million this year.
“Washington is already preparing to send a second Coast Guard cutter to the Philippines this fall and is helping Manila develop its Coast Watch system to monitor its coastline,” write Bower and Parameswaran.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also indicated he is keen to include the Philippines in the annual rotation of some 2,500 U.S. troops, stationed in Australia this year.
This may not be so easy to negotiate however. While the Philippines is the oldest of the U.S.’s five treaty allies in Asia, the relationship stretching back over 60 years, it has not always been clear sailing.
“As we went through the various phases of our bilateral relations, we have learned that even the closest of allies do not agree on all things at all times,” Rosario said.
The relationship reached a particularly low point in the early 1990s when a strong nationalist movement saw the closure of two large U.S. military bases —Subic Bay and Clark Air Base. Philippines law still disallows a foreign base on its soil.
President Aquino will be looking to drum up investment during his U.S. visit, with his delegation including a number of business executives.
He and Obama will discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a trade initiative that grew out of APEC earlier this year. But those discussions may be linked to a more contentious agenda, to have the U.S. Congress pass the Save Our Industries Act (or SAVE Act), which would lift tariffs on Philippine-made garments that use American textiles and result in over $1 billion in apparel exports to the United States, Bower and Parameswaran say.
“The U.S. administration says it would prefer that the Philippines join TPP, which is expected to reduce trade barriers across broad sectors of the economy, rather than ask Congress to pass a bill that would benefit one sector in country,” the CSIS experts said.
Aquino will be meeting Obama for the fourth time in the last two years but it will be their first meeting in the Oval Office.
The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 19 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter.