|US President Barack Obama chats with Philippine counterpart Benigno Aquino as he signs the guest book at the Malacanang Palace in Manila on Monday.[Photo / Agencies]|
Obama backs Manila's decision to seek int'l arbitration of territorial dispute
Washington secured a key part of its pivot to the Asia-Pacific region with a decadelong defense pact with Manila on Monday, as observers said the militarization of the region is playing with fire and makes a diplomatic settlement much harder.
The US-Philippine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was signed on Monday at the Defense Ministry in Manila shortly before Obama's arrival on the last stop of his four-country Asian tour.
The pact gives US forces temporary access to selected bases and allows them to base fighter jets and ships in the Philippines, as "part of a rebalancing of US resources towards fast-growing Asia and the Pacific", Reuters said.
The US goal in Asia, Obama said on Monday, was not to contain or counter a rising China. However he "backed Manila's efforts" to submit territorial problems with China to adjudication by international arbitration, AFP said.
The rhetoric has been charged recently between Beijing and Manila as the Philippines tried to boost its claims over China's Huangyan Island and Ren'ai Reef in the South China Sea and sought greater involvement from Washington.
"Manila's efforts have dovetailed with Washington's intention to shift to the economically booming Asian region, partly as a counterweight to China's growing clout," Associated Press said.
Rommel Banlaoi, an analyst at Manila's Center for Intelligence and National Security, told Reuters that relations between the Philippines and China will deteriorate further as China "is averse to any Philippine government initiative to involve the US in its security agenda".
"We are strengthening our relationship with the US at the expense of our relationship with China," he said.
Jia Duqiang, a Southeast Asian studies expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the pact serves as a component of "the Obama administration's ongoing plans to militarize issues that are rumbling in the Asia-Pacific region", and this is "actually playing with fire".
"We have seen Obama press the need for defense cooperation with US allies in almost every stop of his Asian trip, which illustrates Washington's unchanged double approach in its dealings with China — dialogue plus coercion," Jia said.
Responding to the pact on Monday, Beijing called for "relevant countries" to build more bridges to facilitate trust, regional peace, stability and prosperity.
"The US has said on different occasions that Washington has no intention of coercive moves against China, and it is necessary to examine the follow-up remarks and actions," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a news conference in Beijing on Monday.
The defense deal was signed and announced "when tensions between China and its neighbors have been rising" and it is "the biggest policy achievement" of Obama's trip to Asia, the Washington Post commented.
The Philippines was an American colony from 1898 to 1946, and their defense treaty, signed in 1951, is the oldest US treaty alliance in Asia. During the Cold War the US had a large military presence in the Philippines at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station.
But a greater US presence in the Philippines is a heated topic. Fiery debates in the Philippine Senate ultimately led to closing Subic Bay Naval Station, the last permanent US base in the country, in 1992.
Qu Xing, president of the China Institute of International Studies, warned that rising tension concerning the South China Sea has radicalized public sentiment in some countries, which makes rational discussion over the issue at the diplomatic table "much harder".
Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said a number of China-related remarks made by prominent US figures, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who visited China earlier this month, have sent a clear signal that "Washington is backing the Philippines".
"These remarks run counter to the official US position that it does not take a position over the South China Sea issue," Wu said.
Obama said at a news conference on Monday, "We welcome China's peaceful rise. We have a constructive relationship with China."
But Jia from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Philippines, more so than Japan or Vietnam, has fully endorsed the US strategy of containing China.
"Beijing should never have high expectations of Washington taking a fair approach over the South China Sea issue," Jia said.
"The tension in the South China Sea will probably worsen because Washington is determined more than ever to contain China in this regard," Jia said.