x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Clinton's Philippines stopover mostly symbolic gesture

The visit of the US secretary of State to Manila has been described as a brief halt on the way to somewhere 'more interesting'.

MANILA // When Hillary Clinton arrives in the Philippines today it will be a trip primarily aimed at shoring up Manila's commitment to the "war on terror". The Philippine government can be expected to make a lot of political capital out of Mrs Clinton's 24-hour visit but in reality it will be a symbolic gesture - a brief stopover on her way to Singapore for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit - rather than produce anything of substance.

Mrs Clinton will reinforce the US military commitment in the southern Philippines, where hundreds of Special Forces troops have been operating alongside their Filipino counterparts since 2002. She will also seek a guarantee that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) remains in place despite a move by the Philippine Senate to have it scrapped. It is expected Mrs Clinton will also extend condolences to those affected by the recent storms and flooding and she may even pledge a special aid package for flood victims during her meetings with the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and the foreign minister today and tomorrow.

The primary role of the US contingent in the Philippines is to train Filipino troops in counter-insurgency, collect intelligence and to provide financial and logistical support. The Philippines has been fighting a number of Islamist insurgencies in the south of the country, including against the al Qa'eda-linked Abu Sayyaf group. Both the US secretary of defence, Robert Gates, and the CIA director, Leon Panetta, underlined the US commitment to the south during visits to the Philippines this year.

As the most powerful foreign policy voice in the Obama administration, Mrs Clinton on this visit will be seen in some quarters as strengthening the often quoted "special relationship" between the United States and its former colony. "The belief that the Philippines is a key factor in the global geopolitical calculus of the US, however, is extremely exaggerated and overplayed," said Pete Troilo, a director with Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a Manila-based political risk company.

"Mrs Clinton will not overtly question Mrs Arroyo's intentions or point any fingers in her direction," he said. "The visit will probably be more of a quid pro quo, to guarantee Mrs Arroyo does not influence the 2010 elections." Mr Troilo said Mrs Clinton will "be better positioned" than Mr Gates and Mr Panetta to highlight the benefits to both countries of the Mutual Defense Treaty and Visiting Forces Agreement. He said the primary concern for the US is counterterrorism "plain and simple".

"There is no doubt that the US will continue to invest in the country by providing technical assistance and military equipment to the beleaguered Philippines military. Additionally, with its new reliance on "soft power", the US development assistance focused in Mindanao serves as a key component of its greater counterterrorism strategy in South-East Asia and across the world," Mr Troilo said. But Mrs Clinton's visit comes at a time when the US Congress has held up a military aid package of US$2 million (Dh7.3m) over human rights abuses.

Clarita Carlos of the University of the Philippines, one of the country's leading political scientists, said: "And that is the extent of the special relationship - two million dollars. "The Clinton visit is a stopover to another place more interesting. The special relationship the politicians often talk about is in their heads. There is no special relationship. "I am sure the 'war on terror' will continue, but we have a more pressing war - a war on poverty and hunger which affects half the population," she said.

She said that although the US spends between $2 billion and $3bn a year on aid to countries like Egypt and Israel all Washington can stump up for the Philippines is $667 million this year "and two million of that in military assistance is being held back because of human rights". Mrs Clinton may also address the latest move by the Philippine senate to try to rescind the Visiting Forces Agreement.

One of the prime movers in the senate is Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who said recently: "Why is Mrs Clinton coming here and why are we so excited about her visit? She is coming here because of that VFA resolution. She wants the Americans to stay in the Philippines. "They are not afraid, but they are concerned about it. And I'm afraid they will pressure our president to disregard the resolution of the Philippine Senate, which would be a shame," she said.

Mrs Santiago, who wrote the Senate resolution that got the support of a majority of senators, said that she did not believe Mrs Clinton's pronouncements that her visit had to do with the US wanting to show solidarity with Filipinos after the recent series of typhoons and storms swept across the country. The resolution asks the government to seek a renegotiation with the US on the 10-year-old agreement allowing the Philippines and the US to hold joint military exercises and other activities that include closer cooperation and coordination in military intelligence activities.

The resolution also demands the government terminate the pact altogether should Washington refuse to renegotiate the agreement. Only the president has the power to abrogate a treaty. It is widely believed that Mrs Arroyo, who has less than eight months left in office, would risk jeopardising US-Philippine relations by abrogating the treaty. @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae