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Is Obama pledge really ironclad?

The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) with the United States signed during President Barack Obama’s visit comes as an upshot of the revulsion of Filipinos to China’s aggressive incursions into islets claimed by Manila as part of the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

It defines a new mode of security relationship between the Philippines and the United States in response to China’s growing threat to its smaller neighbors in maritime Asia, as well as to its challenge to US hegemony in Asia-Pacific.

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It revises the framework of the expanded presence of US forces in Philippine military bases as a counterweight to Chinese territorial expansion in the South China and East China Seas.

In a symbolic speech to Filipino and American soldiers at Fort Bonifacio on April 29 before his departure after an overnight stop in Manila, Obama pledged, “Our commitment to defend the Philippines is ironclad  and the United States will keep that commitment because allies never stand alone.”

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Quoting from the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), Obama said both the Philippines and the United States had pledged to help defend each other “against external  attacks, so that no potential aggressor could be under  the illusion that either of them stands alone.”

He said that “deepening our alliance is part of our broader vision for the Asia-Pacific,” referring to his “pivot to Asia” strategic policy.

Freedom of navigation

Obama also reiterated US support for the Philippines’ memorial to the United Nations’ arbitral committee to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China claims sovereignty over most of the sea.

He said territorial integrity and sovereignty needed to be respected, adding: “We believe that international law must be upheld, that freedom of navigation must be preserved and commerce must not be impeded. We believe that disputes must be resolved peacefully                               and not by intimidation or force.”

Despite Obama’s statement at a news conference that “our goal is not to contain China,” the state-run China Daily said in an editorial that Obama’s visit to South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines made it “increasingly obvious that Washington is taking Beijing as an opponent.”

US officials indicated that the Edca was intended to support efforts to strengthen the Philippine armed forces, one of the weakest in Asia, paving the way for more joint training and exercises in which American forces “can begin rotating through Filipino airfields and ports.”

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No clear commitment

The injection by the United States of its pledge to beef up the Philippine military followed an admission by President Aquino that the military doesn’t even have a single fighter in its arsenal, or helicopters capable of reaching remote areas in the country in times of emergency.

How ironclad is Obama’s commitment for the United States to defend the Philippines against external attacks under the new security agreement?

Obama didn’t give any categorical commitment when asked at a news conference after the signing of the Edca whether the 1951 MDT would apply in case the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China escalated into an armed confrontation.

Obama dodged the issue, saying that China had an “interest in abiding by international law,” adding that “larger countries have a greater responsibility” doing so.

“Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China,” he said at a joint news conference with Mr. Aquino.

Balancing act

Observers in the media noted that Obama’s remarks reflected a delicate balancing act throughout his four-nation Asia swing.

“Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of maritime disputes,” he said. “We don’t go around sending ships and threatening folks.”

He also said the objectives of the new agreement were not limited to “issues of maritime security.”

In a speech during the state dinner, Obama resorted to flattery. “We are honored and proud to call you an ally and a friend,” he said. “Through our treaty alliance, the United States has an ironclad commitment to defend you, your security and your independence.”

Oldest treaty ally

Commentators noted that unlike Japan, the Philippines—the oldest US defense treaty ally in Asia—did not receive an unequivocal statement from Obama that Washington would come to Manila’s defense in case of an armed conflict with Beijing over the South China Sea.

During his trip in Japan, Obama said, “Our commitment to Japan’s security is absolute and Article 5 of the [security treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.”

Article 5 of the 1951 MDT states that “an armed attack on either of the parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

Obama, in his tightrope balancing act, reiterated his position that the United States had no “specific position on the disputes between nations.”

Int’l arbitration

But, not too reassuring to the Philippines, Obama said he was “very supportive” of the Philippine decision to seek international arbitration “that can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion.”

Today, he said, “we reaffirm” the importance of resolving territorial disputes in the region peacefully without intimidation or coercion.

“As a matter of international law and norms, we don’t think that coercion and intimidation is the way to manage these disputes,” he told Mr. Aquino.

Taking the cue, Mr. Aquino played down the dispute with China, saying that in the context of the Philippines’ economic and diplomatic relations with Beijing, it was “the only sour point in our relationship.”

Like a dove

Sounding like a dove, Mr. Aquino told Obama that “trying to find a way and means by which we can both achieve our respective goals … has to be the primordial concern, rather than disputes on a few rocks that are not possible  to be inhabited.”

But China has remained unrelenting in its aggressive pressure on rival claimants in the South China Sea.

China state media said Washington’s “rebalancing strategy smacks of a carefully calculated scheme to cage the rapidly developing Asian giant by rallying US allies and reinforcing US presence.”

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TAGS: Barack Obama, defense agreement, Diplomacy, Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), Philippines, territorial dispute, US
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