Obama's state visit to the Philippines: re-balancing the imbalanced?

The last state visit of the United States (U.S.) President to the Philippine was in 2003. President George W. Bush became the fourth to do so after Dwight D. Eisenhower(1960) during the term of President Carlos P. Garcia; Richard M. Nixon (1969) under the administration of President Ferdinand E. Marcos; and Williman J. Clinton (1994) in President Fidel V. Ramo's time. Bush was also the second U.S. President to address the Philippine Congress after Eisenhower.

In his remark before the joint session of the Philippine Congress, Bush referred to the country as "America's oldest ally in Asia and one of America's most valued friends in the world." He defended Iraq's invasion and his strong stand against terrorism and support for war on terror. Bush further stressed that "In the war on terror, U.S.-Philippine military alliance is a rock of stability in the Pacific." The US President also commended then Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's commitment to modernize and reform the military, and vowed to provide technical assistance, field expertise and funding for the purpose.

Bush ended his speech in this wise:

"There is so much to be proud of in your beloved country, your commitments to democracy and peace and your willingness to oppose terrorism and tyranny. The United States and the Philippines have a proud history. And we face the future bound by the strongest ties two nations can share. We stand for liberty, and we stand together."

Eleven years later, the Philippines would welcome anew the President of the United States of America during a two-day state visit of Barack Obama on April 28-29, 2014. This is another "history" for the two countries whose ties are replete with economic, political and more importantly, military stories. But what is the U.S. President's agenda in the Philippines? And in Japan, South Korea and Malaysia, by the way? The Philippine Government wanted a "clearer understanding" of her strategic partnership with the super....

For some analysts, these trips are only in furtherance of the White House's "re-balance" policy in Asia - and U.S. military pivot in the region. But for the Filipino people and various stakeholders, such state visit implies more than a re-balancing in the Asian region, but defining a lot of "internal" issues and concerns between the U.S.-Philippines relations which the Filipinos and the Philippine Government are expected to be critical thereby.

I. Philippines-China Territorial Dispute

As a claimed ally, the U.S. is expected to come up with a clear position on the Philippines' claims in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). On January 22, 2013, the Philippine Government filed a case for binding arbitration before a United Nation's tribunal and submitted a 4,000 page memorial on the matter only last March 2014. Japan and China have also a territorial issue over an island by which President  Obama on visit to Japan expressly declared his position pro-Japanese claim, though calling for a "dialogue and diplomacy, not intimidation and coercion." Japan had previously expressed her support for the Philippine decision of territorial arbitration pursuant to international law.  

China's aggressive posturing in Asia as against all other small states like the Philippines is sending a signal of a superpower in the making. The old "sleeping giant" is slowly waking up and starting conquering the region. The first indication is looking at possible territories to call as her own. What the Philippine Government might be expecting is for Obama to do the same pronouncement he did in Japan.

II. US-Philippines Defense Cooperation

The Framework Agreement on Increased Rotational Presence and Enhanced Defense Cooperation (FA-IRPEDC) is also an agenda between Obama and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. The agreement will give access to U.S. troops in military camps and other strategic areas in the country - paving the way for an increased U.S. military presence. The Philippine Government views this agreement as a bilateral cooperation between two states on strengthening the capability of Philippine military forces and at the same time providing for a stand-by personnel in times of disaster and calamities. 

The strategic location of the Philippines as well as of Japan in advancing U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific Region cannot be taken for granted. Philippine history would also attest to that territorial advantage of the island-country both in times of war and of peace. Whether the FA-IRPEDC will be signed during the Obama's visit is a must-see event. What the least the US President would say to Aquino and the Philippine Government is to agree to "update our defense cooperation" and that the U.S. "will provide technical assistance and field expertise and funding," like what Bush assured the country back then. As to the signing of the defense cooperation, the Philippine Government should not expect it to happen.

III. Bangsamoro and Mindanao Peace

The signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on March 27, 2014 as a definitive step in attaining peace and inclusive growth in Mindanao, Philippines and the possible role of the U.S. in forming a Bangsamoro entity are also discussions in order. The event was witnessed by Malaysian Prime Minister Datu Seri Najib Tun Razak, whose country was the third destination of Obama's tour of Asia.

What can the U.S. do, as claimed ally and old-time friend, in bringing the lasting peace and inclusive development that Mindanao is longing for? But of course, the Philippines as an "independent" country is expected to rely more on her own to implement the needed economic, social and political agenda for Mindanao. But the U.S. had a bit interest on this place. Even Bush had this to say:

"I call on all the members of the MILF to reject terror and to move forward with political negotiations. When a lasting peace is established, the United States is prepared to provide development assistance to Mindanao."

Though new U.S. leadership is at the helm, this promise of a former U.S. President has still resounding implications to the Philippines and Mindanao, and has long-term impact on how the U.S. pivots its superpower tools to advance her interests in the Philippines and in the Asian Region. Once the Bangsamoro Law is passed by the Philippines Congress, the Philippines might be expecting another round of development assistance from the United States.

IV. ASEAN Integration and Asia

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) is set to establish the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015 which envisages the following characteristics:(a) a single market and production base, (b) a highly competitive economic region, (c) a region of equitable economic development, and (d) a region fully integrated into the global economy. The Philippines and Malaysia are 'emerging' economies of the ASEAN. This entity is seen as a potential regional block of Asia, where the two countries and claimed allies of the U.S. are seen to have been playing strategic roles for the latter. Likewise, Japan and South Korea in the East Asian region cannot undermine the great potential of the AEC in their respective markets. 

These four countries in Asia (Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Philippines) may be viewed as Obama's strategic partners and first-line of defense in Asia where the U.S. can easily and conveniently put a military pivot in the region. Japan as Asia's superpower, and South Korea as Asia's economic tiger can to some extent become buffer zones of the U.S. not only in the East Asia but also in the whole Asian continent as against any potential threats to peace and political stability.

Obama's tour to the Philippines, like in Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia, is no ordinary trip of the highest official of the United States. Why are these four countries visited is a good discourse. Policy implications are always there. ASEAN's relevance to Obama's trip is put to question. Asia's role vis-a-vis US dominance is analyzed. In the Philippines, concerns on political and security cooperation, trade and investments expansion, tourism and development cooperation, deepening people-to-people ties, and the rehabilitation of areas affected by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) are more likely to be discussed before the U.S. President.

But every time a US President visits a country, especially in Asia such as the Philippines, there's always an issue of "defense cooperation" between the two countries, as if the world is always looking forward to a war and anticipating threats to security and peace. The Philippines is no exception to such obsession on the U.S. mighty power and military prowess.

In the final note, more than the "clear understanding" on the strategic partnerships that the Philippine Government is expecting from the U.S. President, the Philippine Government itself is in the best position to define such partnership if so exists; and to clear then the strategic partnership up from infirmities if any, and present the same to the Filipino people. Defining country's boundaries and limits as a sovereign people and independent country might be a good step toward a clearer understanding on the part of the Philippines. Reviewing the U.S.-Philippines relations, from time to time, is a clarion call.  

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Tags: Aquino, Asia, Asian, Barack, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Obama, Philippine, Philippines, More…President, Rebalancing, South, U.S., state, to, tour, visit

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Comment by Joselito Narciso B. Caparino on April 28, 2014 at 8:20pm

well said sir. it is indeed the "responsibility of the Philippine government to make bold and visible the ambiguous status of relationship" if really such exists.

Comment by Valentine Olushola Oyedipe on April 28, 2014 at 2:00pm

Yes reviewing the US-Philippines relation from time to time is a clarion call. The beauty of democracy lies in the responsiveness and responsibility of the government, thus it is the responsibility of the Philippines government to make bold and visible the ambiguous status of  relationship between the two countries and at the same time be responsive to the yearnings of the Philippines in regards to the supposed strategic partnership.

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