The Philippine president came to the White House seeking assurance of US military help should his country face attack by China over their conflicting maritime claims.
That is an awkward question for the US as it seeks to enhance its Asian alliances without alarming Beijing. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III met US President Barack Obama yesterday, against the backdrop of a two-month standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The shoal is also contested by Taiwan, who knows it as Huangyan Island (黃岩島).
China’s assertive behavior in those waters have served to bolster Manila’s 60-year alliance with Washington.
Aquino has emerged as a willing US ally as it looks to build a stronger presence in Southeast Asia, a region neglected during a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has won plaudits for combating corruption since winning election two years ago and has revived the impoverished nation’s economy. He has sought Washington’s help in rebuilding a decrepit military that is in little shape to defend its territorial claims.
In a boost to his standing as a worthy ally, Aquino will meet with Obama at the Oval Office after a State Department luncheon hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In many ways, Aquino’s ambitions dovetail with the Obama administration’s as it executes its strategic “pivot.” The two sides are discussing how to enhance the US’ military presence in the Philippines, beyond the decade-long counterterrorism training mission in the country’s Muslim-minority south that involves hundreds of US troops.
Philippine officials said they want Washington to issue a clear public statement that the US would come to the Philippines’ defense if it comes under attack, as provided under their mutual defense treaty. Washington has been unwilling to go beyond general pronouncements that it will comply with its obligations under the treaty.
The US needs to get along with China to prevent their strategic rivalry from spiraling into confrontation and would likely balk at a public declaration. In the past week, tensions at the disputed Scarborough Shoal have receded a little, as China and the Philippines withdrew some vessels from a lagoon at the center of the standoff.
Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security thinktank in Washington, said Aquino is serious about defense modernization, but the US and the Philippines need a measured approach in building the Philippines’ military capacity and in deterring Chinese coercion.
The US has already sent strong messages in recent weeks about its determination to be viewed as a Pacific power.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited emerging strategic allies India and Vietnam last week and announced that 60 percent of the Navy’s fleet will be deployed to the Pacific by 2020, up from about 50 percent now.
One irritant in US-Philippine ties is human rights. The Philippines wants Washington to lift a block on a small portion of US aid imposed by the US Congress since 2008 because of concerns over extrajudicial killings, including by security forces. The killings have declined under Aquino, but the restriction remains as few suspected perpetrators have been arrested or prosecuted.