US President Barack Obama yesterday stood in front of a hulking Philippine Navy frigate and vowed to bolster security in the seas around the island nation — opening a six-day diplomatic tour in Asia that was likely to be divided between the region’s long-simmering disputes and more immediate concerns about Islamic extremism roiling Europe and the Middle East.
During a visit to the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a onetime US-owned warship, Obama said that the US would transfer two additional ships to the Philippine Navy — a US Coast Guard cutter and a research vessel.
“We have a treaty obligation, an ironclad commitment to the defense of our ally, the Philippines. You can count on the United States,” Obama said, with US and Philippine troops looking on. “My visit here underscores our shared commitment to the security of the waters of this region and to the freedom of navigation.”
Obama never mentioned China by name as he stood in front of the Gregorio del Pilar, but the intended recipient of his message was clear.
The announcement was a brief attempt to focus the world’s attention on Obama’s efforts to strengthen alliances in Southeast Asia, a key element of his seven-year campaign to increase US influence in the region.
However, the attacks in Paris and talk of reprisals against the Islamic State group threatened to cloud Obama’s good-news tour to the Philippines and Malaysia this week. While Obama was ready to talk up his freshly signed trade deal and military cooperation in Asia, the rest of the world was looking for leadership on the Islamic State’s relentless reign of violence.
As Obama arrived for a meeting of APEC, the 21-member group readied a statement condemning the Paris attacks — a rare deviation from the group’s chief mission.
The White House was determined this week to show it would keep a steady focus despite the tragedy that consumed European allies. Obama left Washington as scheduled just hours after the night of violence in Paris left 129 people dead and hundreds more injured. He has not changed his plans for the nine-day trip that began Sunday at the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey.
At back-to-back summits in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, Obama was expected to point to recent evidence of long-sought progress in Asia.
Obama’s warship visit was aimed at calling attention to a defense cooperation agreement cemented last year that gives the US new access to some Philippine military bases.
The compact is part of a broader effort to strengthen US presence — and counter China — in the South China Sea. The US this year will spend US$119 million building up Southeast Asian navies, and Obama will ask for another US$140 million in assistance next year, the White House said.
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