Obama visits Philippines; U.S. announces defense pact

MANILA — The U.S. and the Philippines have agreed on a new 10-year defense pact that will allow increased presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines, White House officials said Sunday.

The deal came in advance of President Obama’s arrival in the Philippine capital, Manila, on Monday, the last stop on his four-country Asian tour.

The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which has been under negotiation for eight months, is “the most significant defense agreement that we have concluded with the Philippines in decades,” said Evan Medeiros, National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs.

The accord will give U.S. forces temporary access to select Philippine bases and allow them to position planes and ships there.

Details of the size, duration and location of the increased U.S. presence are yet to be worked out, but it is a significant step in the Obama administration’s pivot toward Asia, a region with a rising power in China and a large number of volatile territorial disputes in the East and South China seas.

The Philippines has long been seeking additional support in its disputes with China over areas such as the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. For the U.S., the pact is an opportunity to reassert its presence in the region and monitor its interests, particularly freedom of navigation on the South China Sea.

Obama has been careful not to antagonize China on this Asia trip, which included visits to Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.

“We’re not interested in containing China,” he said in South Korea on Friday. “We’re interested in China’s peaceful rise and it being a responsible and powerful proponent of the rule of law and an international system.”

Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a senior fellow with the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, said the U.S. is likely to underplay the China-related aspects of the new defense agreement.

“My guess is that although a lot of attention will be on the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China, an effort will be made to frame this security cooperation in terms of other interests also,” she said. They include counterterrorism operations in the Philippines’ restive South and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Rodger Baker, vice president for Asia-Pacific Analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, said increased U.S. presence will initially increase friction with China but may ultimately create a balance of power that will act as a deterrent to conflict.

“The Chinese consider U.S. action encirclement and containment.,” he said. “China may not want U.S. ships regularly patrolling the region, but the rules of engagement will be more readily understood between the two and potentially create a temporary maritime balance.”

Reaction in the Philippines to the new defense agreement is expected to be positive. Public sentiment in the country is broadly pro-U.S. A Pew Research poll found that 85% of Filipinos had a favorable view of the United States, the highest rate in the world.

The Philippines has a long-standing and deep connection with the U.S. It was an American colony from 1898 to 1946, and the countries’ military defense treaty, signed in 1951, is the oldest U.S. treaty alliance in Asia. Throughout the Cold War, the United States maintained a large military presence in the Philippines at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station.

On the day before Obama’s arrival, people enjoying a leisurely Sunday at Manila’s downtown Rizal Park offered support for an increased U.S. presence.

“It’s a big help, of course,” said Ace Torres, 34, a security supervisor for a private company in Manila. The U.S. forces “will help with our defense against China and other countries.”

Rommel Estrada, 35, a clerk in the city government of Quezon, also supported the move. “In my opinion it’s good for the security of the Philippines,” he said. “I think the U.S. soldiers can help ours improve. And they will also help with terrorism.”

Still, U.S. military presence in the Philippines has long been an emotionally charged topic, evoking issues of sovereignty and national pride. Intense debates in the Philippine Senate ultimately led to closing Subic Bay Naval Station, the last permanent U.S. base in the country, in 1992. A small but vocal protest group opposed to U.S. troops in the Philippines was active in the week leading up to the president’s visit and clashed with police in front of the U.S. Embassy in Manila on Wednesday.

Harry Roque, a professor at the University of Philippines College of Law, said the U.S. has consistently refused to take sides on Philippine territorial claims and is unlikely to start a confrontation with China on the Philippines’ behalf.

“Unlike in Japan, where the U.S. has been very explicit in saying they would protect Japan against China, they have not said anything close concerning the Philippines,” he said. “We simply don’t have the same strategic interest and economic interest that the U.S. has with China. And that’s a reality.”