US President Barack Obama said a new military pact signed with the Philippines yesterday granting a larger presence for US forces would bolster the Southeast Asian country’s maritime security, but was not aimed at countering China’s growing military might.
The agreement, which will have an initial 10-year term, was touted as the highlight of Obama’s first visit to the Philippines, the US’ oldest ally in the region.
It sets the framework for a beefed-up rotation of US troops, ships and warplanes through the Philippines, part of a rebalancing of US resources toward fast-growing Asia and the Pacific.
However, China interprets the move as an attempt to contain its increasing military capability and embolden Manila in a decades-long territorial dispute with Beijing.
“The goal for this agreement is to build Philippine capacity to engage in training, engage in coordination, not simply to deal with issues of maritime security, but also to enhance our capabilities so that if there is a natural disaster that takes place we can respond quickly,” Obama told a joint news conference in Manila after talks with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
“Our goal is not to counter China, our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected, and that includes the area of maritime disputes,” he said.
He added that Washington’s support for Manila’s move to seek international arbitration over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, an important shipping route that is believed to be rich in energy resources.
The Philippines is the last stop on a week-long tour of Asia partly aimed at reassuring US allies that Washington remains committed to its strategic “pivot” to the region.
Obama said all four countries he has visited, including Japan, which has its own dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea, were committed to seeking a peaceful resolution of territorial issues.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, overlapping the claims of Taiwan, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
China has rejected international arbitration, preferring a bilateral route to solving the jurisdictional disputes.
Rising tensions were highlighted by a commentary from Xinhua news agency criticizing the pact.
“Given that the Philippines is at a bitter territorial row with China, the move is particularly disturbing as it may embolden Manila in dealing with Beijing,” the commentary said.