US President Barack Obama ended an Asian tour Tuesday with a warning to China against using force in territorial disputes and said the United States had an ironclad commitment to defend the Philippines in case of attack.
The barbs ensured a tense finish to a four-nation trip dominated by the worsening maritime rows between China and US allies in the region, which have triggered fears of military conflict.
“We believe that nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace, to have their sovereignty and territorial integrity respected,” Obama told a gathering of US and Filipino troops in Manila.
“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.”
Close American ally the Philippines has been embroiled in one of the highest-profile territorial disputes with China, over tiny islets, reefs and rocks in the South China Sea.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain huge deposits of oil and gas, even waters and islands or reefs close to its neighbors.
The Philippines, which has one of the weakest militaries in the region, has repeatedly called on longtime ally the United States for help as China has increased military and diplomatic pressure to take
control of the contested areas.
The Philippines and the United States signed an agreement on Monday that will allow a greater US military presence on Filipino bases.
Obama sought on Tuesday to reassure the Philippines that the United States would support its ally in the event of being attacked, citing a 1951 mutual defense treaty between the two nations.
“This treaty means our two nations pledge, and I am quoting, ‘our common determination to defend themselves from external armed attacks’,” Obama said.
“And no potential aggressor can be under the illusion that either of them stands alone. In other words, our commitment to defend the Philippines is ironclad. The United States will keep that commitment because allies will never stand alone.”
Nevertheless, Obama did not specifically mention coming to the aid of the Philippines if there were a conflict over the contested South China Sea areas, as his hosts had hoped.
On the first leg of his Asian tour in Tokyo, Obama had made such a pledge of support to Japan, which is locked in its own dispute with China over rival claims to islands in the East China Sea.
Obama’s nuanced position on the Philippines was part of a tight-rope act he had tried to perform during his trip—reassuring allies wary about China’s perceived increased hostility while not antagonizing the
leadership in Beijing.
While offering pledges of protection to Japan and the Philippines, Obama also insisted the United States was not seeking to counter or contain China.
And reflecting the difficulties of Obama’s balancing act, there were complaints in the Philippines that he had not offered explicit support in the event of a conflict over the contested South China Sea areas.
Before flying back to Washington, Obama addressed Filipino and American war veterans and soldiers inside the packed Philippine Army gym in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City.
US Embassy spokesperson Kurt Hoyer said the American troops were participants in the Balikatan joint military exercises or members of the Joint US Military Assistance Group.
The Mutual Defense Treaty is the backbone of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was signed by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US Ambassador Philip Goldberg hours before Obama arrived in the country Monday.
Under the EDCA agreement, Obama said American forces can begin rotating through Filipino airfields and ports.
“We’ll train and exercise together more to bring our militaries even closer, and to support your efforts to strengthen your armed forces. We’ll improve our ability to respond even faster to disasters like
Yolanda. Today, I thank the people of the Philippines for welcoming our service members as your friends and partners,” said Obama in the event which attended by government officials led by Vice President Jejomar Binay, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Interior and Local Government Sec. Manuel Roxas II, Senator Loren Legarda, Rep. Rodolfo Biazon and former President Fidel Ramos.
Obama said the EDCA is the beginning of a new chapter in the alliance between the two countries. He noted that deepening this alliance is a part of their broader vision for the Asia Pacific.
“We believe that nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace, and to have their sovereignty and territorial integrity respected,” he said.
“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. That’s what our nations stand for. That’s the future we’re working for. And that’s why your service is so important,” he said.
At the same time, the US President admitted the injustice done to many Filipino veterans whose service was never fully recognized by the United States and who were denied the compensation they had been promised.
To address this, his administration worked with the US Congress to right the wrong, he said. To date, the government has reviewed the records and processed the claims of nearly 20,000 Filipino veterans of World War II and their families, who finally received the compensation they earned.
“And it was the right thing to do,” Obama said, honoring the war veterans present.
“Among them are men who fought at Bataan and Corregidor, and a survivor of those hellish prisoner of war camps. Some fought in the resistance, including nurse Carolina Garcia Delfin. These veterans are now in their nineties. They are an inspiration to us all, and I’d ask those who can stand to stand or give a wave so that we can all salute their service.
“The spirit of these veterans, their strength, their solidarity – I see it in you as well when you train and exercise together to stay ready for the future, when our special forces—some of you here today—advise and assist our Filipino partners in their fight against terrorism, and when you respond to crises together, as you did after Yolanda. Along with your civilian partners, you rushed into the disaster zone, pulled people from the rubble, delivered food and medicine. You showed what friends can do when we take care of each other,” said Obama.
Recalling the battles for Bataan and Corregidor, he said: “The loss of life was grievous, and hardly a
Filipino family was untouched by the tragedy... But the heroic struggle brought out the best in the Filipino character in the face of adversity and served as a beacon to freedom-loving peoples everywhere.”
“The American cemetery here in Manila—the final resting place of so many Americans and Filipinos who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of this country in that war.
“These Americans and Filipinos rest in peace as they stood in war – side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder – balikatan,” he said.
He said together, Filipinos and Americans endured the agony of the death marches and the horror of the prisoner of war camps. Many never made it out.
“In those years of occupation, Filipino resistance fighters kept up the struggle. And hundreds of thousands of Filipinos fought under the American flag,” said Obama, who said there was a connection between the veterans from World War II and the men and women serving today, bound across the generations by the spirit of their alliance, Filipinos and Americans standing together.
“On behalf of the American people, thank you all for your service. Thank you for making us so proud. To the Americans here, I am never prouder than being able to stand before you as your Commander-in-Chief. To our Filipino armed forces—thank you for being such an outstanding ally. Together, you are helping to secure the prosperity and peace of both our nations,” said Obama, who took off his jacket because of the sweltering heat, and promised the men in uniform his speech would not be long.
“I thank President Aquino for his partnership and the deeper ties that we forged yesterday. I’m especially proud to be here as we remember one of the defining moments of our shared history—the 70th anniversary of the battle of Leyte during World War II and the beginning of the liberation of the Philippines,” he said.
Obama continuously waved as he stepped inside Air Force One shortly after 11 a.m. at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, which signaled the end of his two-day visit.
His plane took off 11:28 a.m.
Manila was the last stop in a four-nation tour of Asia. He had earlier visited Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.
In the Palace, Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma, Jr. said Obama had vowed to help the Philippines establish a coast watch center to enhance its maritime border security and domain. – With AFP, Sara Susanne Fabunan
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