x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

US visit by Philippines president highlights allies eyes on China

Benigno Aquino, well-regarded by the US government, not least for his battles against corruption, is being accorded a White House meeting today with Barack Obama, the US president.

WASHINGTON // The Philippines president, Benigno Aquino, is in the United States for a visit that will highlight the archipelago's growing importance in US strategic thinking.

Mr Aquino, well-regarded by the US government, not least for his battles against corruption, is being accorded a White House meeting today with Barack Obama, the US president.

That meeting comes as Washington has begun helping Manila beef up its modest military capacities in the face of a confrontation with China over contested South China Sea reefs.

The United States, the colonial ruler of the Philippines from 1898-1946 and a treaty ally with Manila since 1951, has embraced the Philippines as part of a policy that makes the Asia-Pacific region the centre of US security and economic strategy.

"The meeting between President Aquino and President Obama will lay the groundwork for the future of the strategic partnership between the Philippines and the United States," said Jose Cuisia, the Philippines ambassador in Washington.

Mr Aquino will also meet high-ranking US legislators for "discussions on our bilateral economic and defence cooperation, the shift in the focus of the United States towards the Asia-Pacific and ways to revitalise our alliance", the envoy said.

Washington's "rebalancing" of forces to the Asia-Pacific region, a post-Cold War strategy two decades in the making, has accelerated under the Obama administration as a response to China's rapid military modernisation and growing assertiveness in that region.

A US official said Washington saw Mr Aquino as a leader who is "trying to do the right thing" to tackle the corruption, cronyism and red tape that have held back the economy of his nation of 93 million people.

But the United States is moving cautiously in solidifying defence ties with Manila. The Philippines evicted the US military from Naval Station Subic Bay in 1992, and nationalist sentiment remains high.

Even as it fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States kept more than 70,000 troops in a network of military bases in Japan and South Korea that date back to the 1950s.

The Obama policy has focused on South East Asia and crafting flexible arrangements with other allies in Asia, Australia and the Philippines, and ship visits to Singapore and Vietnam.

In upgrading its military capability to protect its interests in disputed areas of the South China Sea, Manila has been looking to Washington for ships, aircraft and surveillance and equipment to build a credible defence posture.

After high-level talks in late April, the Obama administration pledged to increase its annual foreign military sales programme to the Philippines to US$30 million (Dh110.1m), about three times the level of the 2011 programme.

"We've been working with the Philippines on military modernisation for 12 or 13 years, very intensively," said Walter Lohman, a South East Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

"The only thing that has changed is the urgency of this and the seriousness the Philippines has shown under the Aquino administration."

Manila's new urgency stems from a months-long showdown with China at the Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe shaped reef near the Philippines in waters both countries claim.

The United States is formally neutral on South China Sea territorial issues, complex disputes which also pit China against Vietnam and other South East Asian nations.

Washington, however, has promoted multilateral diplomacy to handle the disputes - challenging China's insistence on bilateral talks with its weaker neighbours.

"The United States has the dilemma of balancing the many, many vital interests we have in our relations with China, with our interests in South East Asia and it really is a balancing act," said Don Weatherbee, a South East Asia security analyst.