US PLEDGES SUPPORT FOR SURVEILLANCE OF RP COAST
President Aquino appeared to have obtained what he ventured to get from the United States in his official visit which is more surplus military hardware from the world superpower but likely at the cost of further incensing China which suspects the US of trying to encircle the emerging rival and in exchange for his unqualified support to the American government’s policy to pivot most of its forces in the Asia Pacific.
In a statement, US President Barack Obama pledged US support for Aquino’s efforts to upgrade the notoriously antiquated Philippine military and build a “minimum credible defense posture.”
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the US will
support the setting up of a National Coast Watch System, which involves intelligence exchanges on maritime domain issues and funding for the construction of the National Coast Watch Center, as well as equipment and training.
“The establishment of the National Coast Watch Center is vital in securing the territorial integrity, ensuring the maritime security and protecting the maritime resources of an archipelagic country with a 36,000-kilometer coastline like the Philippines,” Del Rosario said.
“The National Coast Watch Center, which is a concrete realization of President Aquino’s directive, will enable us to know what is happening in our maritime territory on a 24-hour basis,” he added, referring to Executive Order 57 signed by the President in September, which calls for the establishment of a National Coast Watch Center headed by the Philippine Coast Guard to implement and coordinate maritime security operations in the country.
The United States has stepped up military aid, including delivering last year a decommissioned coast guard cutter — which the Philippines rechristened the Gregario del Pilar and which replaced a World War II-era vessel as its navy’s biggest ship.
The Obama administration has focused on building relations in Asia. In the next week alone, the United States will separately welcome the foreign ministers of Cambodia, India, South Korea and Thailand.
In exchange, Aquino said, the Philippines welcomed the United States’ re-balancing plan, which, he said, would strategically position about 60 percent of US forces in the Asia-Pacific by 2020.
He also bared the country’s commitment to defusing the tension in the Scarborough Shoal, locally referred to as Bajo de Masinloc, which both the People’s Republic of China and the Philippines are claiming as an integral part of their territory.
The United States and the Philippines called for freedom of navigation in the tense South China Sea as the White House offered a robust show of support for Aquino.
Obama welcomed Aquino to the White House in the latest high-profile gesture to put a focus on US ties to Asia, where a number of countries are embroiled in territorial conflicts with a rising China.
Aquino said that while it was not the intention of his government to embroil the United States in military intervention in the Asia-Pacific Region particularly the ongoing tension in the West Philippine Sea, he said countries in the region would benefit from the stability brought about by the US presence in the area.
“We recognize that our two nations, with so many other nations, will all share in the peace and prosperity that comes from the US adding its voice to supporting and guaranteeing a rules-based international system,” Aquino told the formal launching of the United States-Philippines Society at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington D.C. on the eve of his meeting with Obama.
“Right now we are engaged in bilateral dialogue to find a mutually beneficial way to break the impasse; and we fully intend to come up with a solution that will maintain peace and stability in the region, while at the same time upholding the dignity and sovereign rights of our people,” the President said.
According to Aquino, his administration had been firm in asserting its rights over the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone as he expressed the belief that it was important for the People’s Republic of China to adhere to the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea.
China has repeatedly rejected resolving the dispute by mediation by a third party, insisting that conflicts be resolved only among those involved or among regional groupings.
Addressing reporters next to Aquino in the Oval Office, Obama said the two leaders spoke about “trying to make sure that we have a strong set of international norms and rules governing maritime disputes in the region.”
In a joint statement released afterward, the two leaders “underscored the importance of the principles of ensuring freedom of navigation, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce.”
Aquino and Obama called for diplomacy to resolve territorial disputes “without coercion or the use of force.”
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea up to Southeast Asian nations’ shores and tensions have soared in recent years with both the Philippines and Vietnam.
The Philippines and China recently pulled back vessels after a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal, which lies near the main Philippine island of Luzon.
Aquino’s visit to the United States was closely watched in China, where some policymakers suspected — despite official US denials — that the United States was seeking to encircle the growing Asian power.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, toasting Aquino early Friday at a luncheon in his honor, credited Aquino with defusing tensions over the rock formation.
The US and the Philippines signed agreements to step up cooperation on science and technology and to boost the number of Peace Corps volunteers in the former US colony.
But Aquino’s visit was largely symbolic, with many US policymakers believing that the son of democracy heroine Corazon Aquino had revitalized an often overlooked relationship by tackling hard issues.
Aquino recently won a major battle in his campaign against corruption with the sacking of the country’s top judge. Aquino has also agreed to let more US troops rotate — but not be based — in the Philippines despite the historical baggage.
“I’ve always found President Aquino to be a thoughtful and very helpful partner,” Obama said.
“And I think that as a consequence of the meeting today in which we discussed not only military and economic issues, but also regional issues — for example, trying to make sure that we have a strong set of international norms and rules governing maritime disputes in the region — that I’m very confident that we’re going to see continued friendship and strong cooperation between our two countries,” he said.
Aquino said his meeting with Obama had “deepened and strengthened a very long relationship we have, especially as we face the challenges that are before both our countries in the current situation.”
Clinton and Obama both voiced support for efforts by the 10-member Asean to reach a code of conduct with China on managing disputes in the South China Sea, through which half of the world’s trade flows.
The Asean and China had agreed in 2002 to negotiate a code of conduct. But there has been little progress, with a rising China preferring to negotiate with each country individually instead of dealing with the unified bloc.
Aquino held an almost hour-long meeting with Obama at the White House on Friday, the final day of a three-day official working visit to the United States that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) described as an enormous success.
“President Aquino just ushered in a new era in our bilateral relations by successfully laying the foundation for our new strategic partnership with the United States,” Del Rosario said.
In a statement released shortly after the meeting, the White House said Obama reiterated to Aquino Washington’s “commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty” and assured him of US support to the Philippine Government’s ongoing efforts to upgrade the country’s defense capabilities.
“President Obama reaffirmed the US Government’s support for Philippine efforts to build a minimum credible defense posture, as evidenced by our transfer of a second US Coast Guard Cutter to the Philippine Navy, support for the Philippine National Coast Watch System, and the growing number of bilateral exercises and training programs,” the White House said in its statement.
The White House said both leaders also agreed to build on the success of the joint counter-terrorism efforts by looking into how the two countries could further enhance their cooperation in such areas as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security and maritime domain awareness.
The White House said Aquino also briefed Obama on developments in the South China Sea and received support for his efforts to defuse the tension and seek a diplomatic solution to the impasse at Bajo de Masinloc or the Panatag Shoal.
“Both President Aquino and President Obama underscored the importance of the principles of freedom of navigation, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce. They expressed his firm support for a collaborative diplomatic process among claimants to resolve territorial disputes in a manner consistent with international law and without coercion or the use of force,” the statement read.
The White House said Obama also conveyed his support for the ongoing efforts within the Asean to reach an agreement with China on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that creates a rules-based framework for managing and regulating the conduct of parties, including preventing and managing disputes.
Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Cuisia Jr., who was present during the White House meeting, said Obama’s position on the South China Sea followed similar statements made by Clinton during the lunch she hosted for Aquino at the State Department also on Friday.
“The United States does not take a position on the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. But we do, however, have a clear interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea,” Clinton told more than 200 guests that included US diplomats and legislators and prominent Filipino-Americans.
“In this context, we welcome the initial steps to defuse tensions surrounding the Scarborough Reef taken by President Aquino. And we encourage continued diplomatic dialogue and further efforts to lessen tension, to disengage, and to resolve the situation peacefully,” she said.
“The United States has been consistent in that we oppose the use of force or coercion by any claimant to advance its claims, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely. We also call on Asean and China to conclude their efforts to reach consensus on a code of conduct for the South China Sea,” Clinton said.
The latest assurances from Washington that it would abide by its commitment under the Mutual Defense Treaty followed the unanimous adoption by the US Senate of a resolution calling for increased defense and security cooperation with the Philippines.
According to Ambassador Cuisia, Senate Resolution 481, sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana), calls for increased cooperation and enhanced bilateral security ties between the two countries, including support for Philippine defense modernization, the rotational presence of US forces and increased humanitarian and disaster relief preparedness activities.
It also urged Washington to continue its efforts to assist Manila in the areas of maritime security, maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and related communications infrastructure to foster enhanced information sharing and overall military professionalism.
The resolution also cited the April 30, 2012 meetings where Clinton and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reaffirmed to Secretary del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin that Washington remains “fully committed to honoring mutual obligations with the Philippines and that the alliance continues to serve as a pillar of the Philippines-US relationship and a source of stability in the region.”
The resolution also underscored the shared interest of the two countries “in maintaining freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce and transit of people across the seas and subscribe to a rules-based approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas through peaceful, collaborative, multilateral and diplomatic processes within the framework of international law.”
“The Senate confirms the alliance’s centrality and enduring value as one of the key pillars of peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and as a key tool in addressing the emerging security environment in the region,” the resolution read.
The resolution, which was co-sponsored by Senators John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts); James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma); Jim Webb (Democrat, Virginia); Kelly Ayotte (Democrat, New Hampshire); Tad Cochran (Republican, Mississippi) and Daniel Inouye (Democrat, Hawaii), also called on Manila and Washington to continue high-level consultations.