WASHINGTON — The U.S. and Philippines said Friday they are expanding intelligence sharing and cooperation on maritime security, as President Obama reiterated Washington's desire to be viewed as a Pacific power.
Obama met at the Oval Office with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III against the backdrop of a two-month standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.
China's assertive behavior in those waters has served to bolster Manila's 60-year alliance with Washington, which thrived during the Cold War but ebbed after nationalist political forces prompted the closure of American military bases in 1992.
Obama thanked Aquino for what he called “excellent cooperation” on economic, defense and other issues. Aquino earlier declared the allies are at a “new juncture in our relations.”
The security and military cooperation with the Philippines “is a reminder to everybody that the United States considers itself, and is, a Pacific power,” Obama said.
Aquino, the son of democracy heroes, has emerged as a willing partner of the U.S. as it looks to build a stronger presence in Southeast Asia, a region neglected during a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two sides are discussing how to enhance the U.S. military presence in the Philippines, beyond the decade-long counterterrorism training mission in the country's south that involves hundreds of American troops.
The U.S. and the Philippines are bound by a mutual defense treaty. The Philippines has been seeking a clear public statement that the U.S. would come to its defense should it face attack.
The U.S. has restricted itself to saying it would honor its obligations under the treaty. No further statement was forthcoming Friday, and neither leader mentioned China.
At a lunch hosted earlier for Aquino at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed an easing of the tensions at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the past week, as China and the Philippines withdrew some vessels from a lagoon at the center of the standoff. She reiterated U.S. interest in peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.
“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,” Clinton said.
Obama made a sidelong reference to the South China Sea dispute.
“We have a strong set of international norms and rules governing maritime disputes in the region,” Obama said.
Clinton said the U.S. and the Philippines are working closely to increase information and intelligence exchanges and coordination on maritime domain issues. She announced the U.S. will support the construction and training of a National Coast Watch Center to help the Philippines monitor its coastline.
Aquino, who has presided over an improvement in the Philippine economy, has sought Washington's help in rebuilding a decrepit military that is in little shape to defend its territorial claims. Obama reaffirmed U.S. support for helping the Philippines build a “minimum credible defense posture.”
Last month, the U.S. handed to the Philippines a second Coast Guard cutter following the transfer last year of a similar 45-year-old vessel that has since become a flagship in the Philippine navy as the island nation increasingly focuses on its maritime security. Close U.S. ally Japan is also reportedly preparing to supply the Philippines with 10 smaller, new patrol vessels.
While the Obama administration has worked to enhance ties with the Philippines, the U.S. is very mindful of its need to get along with China to prevent their strategic rivalry from spiraling into confrontation. Washington is careful to stress that while it supports efforts of Southeast Asian nations to develop a code of conduct with China on managing disputes in the South China Sea, it has no position on the conflicting territorial claims there that involve a half dozen nations.
The U.S. also says it has no intent to try and contain China, although it has left little doubt about its determination to be viewed as a Pacific power.
Last month saw a rare stop by a U.S. submarine at Subic Bay, location of a former American naval base that faces the South China Sea. And in the past week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited emerging strategic ally India and Vietnam – another South China Sea claimant at odds with China and forging closer relations with the United States. Panetta announced that 60 percent of the Navy's fleet will be deployed to the Pacific by 2020, up from about 50 percent now.