Obama puts maritime dispute on agenda as gathering begins

Posted on November 18, 2015

US PRESIDENT Barack H. Obama affirmed Washington’s commitment to the Philippines’ security and to freedom of navigation in Asia on Tuesday, squarely putting tension over Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea onto the agenda ahead of a regional summit.

US President Barack H. Obama speaks following a tour of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar in Manila Harbor on Nov. 17. The American leader arrived in Manila that day to take part in the APEC Summit. -- AFP
Mr. Obama’s comments in Manila Harbor after visiting the Philippines’ main warship came hours after China said it was the real victim of the waterway dispute because other countries had illegally occupied islands there.

“We have a treaty obligation, an iron-clad commitment to the defense of our ally the Philippines,” Mr. Obama said after boarding the Philippines navy frigate that was a US Coast Guard cutter until 2011 but on Tuesday flew the flags of both two allies.

Mr. Obama did not mention China but the symbolism of his visit was hard to miss: the aging vessel is now a mainstay of the Philippine Navy, operating around the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by both Manila and Beijing.

“My visit here underscored our shared commitment to the security of the waters of this region and to freedom of navigation,” said Mr. Obama, flanked by a group of about two dozen US and Philippines uniformed navy personnel.

On Tuesday, the White House also issued a statement saying it would provide $259 million to Southeast Asian allies the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

“We are increasing the maritime security capacity of our allies and partners to respond to threats in waters off their coasts and to provide maritime security more broadly across the region,” the statement said.

The Philippines, which has one of the weakest militaries in Asia and but the most vocal critic of China’s actions in the disputed seas, will receive $79 million in assistance to bolster maritime security.

Indonesia, which is not a claimant but has asked China to clarify its position in the sea, will get nearly $20 million to help “protect its maritime areas.”

Malaysia, where Mr. Obama will travel to on Friday for another regional political summit, will receive $2.5 million worth of maritime security aid.

Vietnam, a former US enemy that has also spoken out strongly against China’s regional assertiveness, will get $40.1 million in aid over this financial year and next, according to the White House statement.

The Philippines and Vietnam also signed on Tuesday a strategic partnership to deepen security ties, cementing an alliance built partly on their concerns over China.

Mr. Obama, for his part, offered the Philippines a warship as part of the aid package and a research vessel to help map its territorial waters.

The US president made the pledges aboard the Philippine Navy’s flagship, shortly after arriving in Manila.

This first stop in Manila for the American leader is a symbolic one -- touring a naval vessel that has come to represent Philippine resistance to China over the disputed South China Sea.

The BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which is known to many Filipinos for confronting two Chinese surveillance ships in 2012 near a disputed shoal in the Spratly island chain. The vessel is also a symbol of US military support for the Philippines as it got its start in the US Coast Guard before it was decommissioned in 2011 and transferred to the Southeast Asian nation.

After its transfer, the Philippines renamed the ship, the fastest in the Philippine navy, after one of the nation’s youngest generals who fought in the Philippine-American war at the end of the 19th century.

The US Coast Guard keeps its ships for an average of more than 40 years, much longer than the navy. Previously named the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, the ship was commissioned in 1967 and used in the Vietnam War. The Coast Guard is in the process of replacing its aging Hamilton-class fleet with national security cutters. It has sold other ships from the fleet to Bangladesh and Nigeria.

Mr. Obama standing on a warship in Manila Harbor will be the latest signal of US push back as China asserts its claim to more than 80% of one of the world’s busiest waterways. The tour comes weeks after a US warship sailed near one of the artificial islands China has built in the sea, with the US seeking to show it doesn’t recognize the feature qualifies for any protected waters under international law.

The South China Sea has come up in both Republican and Democratic presidential candidate debates. Republican candidates Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio pointed to China as an emerging security threat. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said in the Democratic debate that China’s actions in the South China Sea present “challenges” to the United States

In Manila, Mr. Obama is expected to meet today with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the start of the APEC leaders’ gathering.

Mr. Xi, who also arrived in Manila on Tuesday, has so far not made any public comments. But in Beijing, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said China was the real victim in the South China Sea dispute, as “dozens” of its islands and reefs had been illegally occupied by three of the claimants. Mr. Liu did not name any countries.

“The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied by neighboring countries,” the minister said. “But we haven’t done this. We have maintained great restraint with the aim to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Beijing has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.

A week before the summit, US B-52 strategic bombers flew near Chinese artificial islands, signaling Washington’s determination to challenge Beijing over the disputed sea.

Messrs. Obama and Xi will be among about 20 heads of state and government attending the main APEC meeting on Wednesday and a leaders retreat on Thursday. The Philippines has said it will not bring up the South China Sea dispute to avoid embarrassing Mr. Xi, but also said it could not prevent others from doing so.

The APEC meet is the first of two regional summits that were supposed to bolster trade and security ties but have been clouded by last week’s coordinated attacks on Paris by the Islamic State.

The gathering comes on the heels of a G20 summit in Turkey that was dominated by discussions about the violence emanating from Syria’s 4-1/2-year-old civil war.

From Manila, many of the leaders go on to Kuala Lumpur to attend an East Asia summit at the weekend.

For Mr. Obama, the latest flurry of summitry illustrates how his effort to “rebalance” US policy toward Asia-Pacific countries has consistently run into the geopolitical reality that the persistently volatile Middle East cannot be ignored.

The Philippines was on high alert as the leaders arrived for the APEC meeting.

Police in Manila, a city of 12 million, closed off many roads leading to the venues of the meeting, causing heavy traffic jams. Local media said the gridlock was so bad that a woman in labor didn’t make it to hospital and gave birth in her car.

Philippines officials say there has been no intelligence suggesting there might be an attack on the Manila summit but about 30,000 police and soldiers have been deployed to guard it.

The South China Sea issue was not mentioned in a draft of the APEC leaders’ final statement seen by Reuters.

High up in the document, however, the leaders condemned terrorism and said they were resolved to counter it together.

“Under the shadow cast by the recent attacks in Paris, we stand in solidarity with the people of France and all victims of terrorism elsewhere,” the draft statement said.

Mr. Obama will likely discuss the friction over the South China Sea and military relations when he meets Philippine President Benigno S. C. Aquino III on the sidelines of the summit on Wednesday.

Mr. Aquino and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are also expected to agree on a deal paving the way for Tokyo to supply Manila with used military equipment, possibly including aircraft that could be deployed to patrol the South China Sea, sources said.

Manila and Hanoi are also due to sign a strategic partnership deal governing how their navies will work together. -- Reuters, AFP and Bloomberg