WASHINGTON – The Philippine president has come to the White House seeking assurance of U.S. military help should the Southeast Asian ally face attack by rising power China over its conflicting maritime claims.
That's an awkward question for the U.S. as it seeks to enhance its Asian alliances without alarming Beijing. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III met Friday with President Barack Obama 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.
The solid relationship with the Philippines "is a reminder to everybody that the United States considers itself, and is, a Pacific power," Obama said following an Oval Office meeting with Aquino.
Neither leader mentioned China, but 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.
At a lunch hosted for Aquino before the Oval Office meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the U.S. will support the construction and training of a National Coast Watch Center to help the Philippines monitor its coastline. She said the allies are working closely to increase information and intelligence exchanges.
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. He's won plaudits for combating corruption since winning election two years ago and has revived the impoverished nation's economy. He's sought Washington's help in rebuilding a decrepit military that is in little shape to defend its territorial claims.
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.
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 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.
While Manila is amenable to troop rotations, more military exercises and port visits, Philippine officials told The Associated Press they want Washington to issue a clear public statement that the U.S. 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 officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
The U.S. needs to get along with China to prevent their strategic rivalry from spiraling into confrontation and would likely balk at a public declaration of the kind the Philippines seeks. 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.
Clinton welcomed those steps Friday. "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. She reiterated U.S. interests in maintenance of peace and stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
The U.S. has already sent strong messages in recent weeks 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.
One irritant in U.S.-Philippine ties is human rights. The Philippines wants Washington to lift a block on a small portion of U.S. aid imposed by 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.
Human Rights Watch said that in the past decade, security forces have been implicated in hundreds of cases of extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances. Only seven cases of extrajudicial killings, involving 11 defendants, have been successfully prosecuted; none since Aquino took power and none involving active duty military personnel, it said.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Washington and Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.