MANILA, Philippines – When US President Barack Obama arrives in Manila on Monday, April 28, it will be the first time in nearly 11 years that an American president has visited the Philippines.
But this time, the agenda is different.
When George W. Bush met with former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in October 2003, Bush addressed a joint session of the Philippine Congress wherein he pushed the Philippines to back its war against terror.
This time, the main focus of talks will still be on security, but rather than terrorists, the concern is towards the rising superpower China.
On the first day of Obama’s visit, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation (EDC) agreement, a military deal that will give American troops wider access to military bases here, will be signed.
The signing comes amid ongoing tensions between the Philippines and China over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). (READ: Obama visit to give ‘clearer understanding’ of PH-US alliance)
The Philippines has sought the military assistance of the US, a treaty ally, to shore up its weak defenses while the United States is refocusing its attention to Asia.
While some of those working on the deal have insisted the agreement is not because of China, the United States has repeatedly spoken out against China’s aggression in the region.
Obama himself was quoted by ABS-CBN as saying he has been “clear and consistent in stressing that the United States and China need to support efforts among claimants to peacefully manage and resolve maritime and territorial issue through dialogue, not intimidation, including in the South China Sea.”
In the same written interview, Obama also said the agreement would “help the Philippines continue to build its defense capabilities, and it would help us promote security cooperation across the region.”
Obama is staying in Manila until Tuesday, April 29 before flying back to the United States.
Watch preparations for his visit below.
Support vs China
The Philippines is Obama’s final stop in his Asian tour, after visits to Japan, South Korea and Malaysia respectively.
Coming to Asia, the United States was expected to argue that its rebalancing policy – of withdrawing US military, economic and human resources from the Middle East and deploying them to emerging Asia – remains on track.
In Japan, Obama pledged support for Tokyo, which is also in the midst of a territorial dispute with China. He gave assurances to their ally that US support will continue, adding the islands claimed by both countries are covered by a defense treaty that would oblige Washington to act if they were attacked.
Like Manila, Tokyo craved reassurance that the US was prepared to support it if push comes to shove with Beijing over their separate sovereignty rows.
Obama is expected to give a similar statement during his visit here. In the ABS-CBN interview, Obama cited the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries, which has pledged US support for the Philippines for more than 60 years.
“Our treaty obligations are iron-clad. The United States stands by its allies, in good times and in bad,” he said. “In fact, one of the main purposes of my visit will be to reaffirm our treaty commitments to the Philippines and to make it clear that just as we’ve relied on each other in the past, we can count on each other today.”
Aside from security and defense issues, Obama told ABS-CBN his visit is an “opportunity to begin a new chapter in the relationship between the Philippines and the United States” in a “whole range of areas.”
Topics to be discussed by the leaders when they meet in Malacañang are 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).
Obama is expected to arrive in the country at 1:30pm Monday, and will proceed to Malacañang for bilateral talks with Aquino, followed by a joint press conference. He will be feted to a Palace dinner in his honor.
Obama will spend the second day of his trip with Filipino troops at the military headquarters in Taguig and is expected to visit the World War II American cemetery in the same city.
The two leaders will end their respective terms in 2016.
Both elected against the backdrop of a previously unpopular government, Obama and Aquino – who are relatively young in their early 50s – ran on the campaign of change.
Both presidents, Obama since 2008 and Aquino since 2010, have succeeded in passing controversial laws despite stiff challenges.
Among them is the the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act –passed under Obama’s administration in 2010 – a law reforming health care by seeking universal coverage, and one of Obama’s key campaign promise.
But Republicans, who have campaigned for years to repeal the law, charge that it is a failure. They point out that Obama has delayed several key aspects of the program and allege that modifications were meant to protect Democrats from damage in mid-term elections in November.
As of April 2014, Obamacare reached its sign up target of 7 million people.
Aquino tackled a similar challenge from the Catholic Church when the Reproductive Health Law was passed. The law funds the distribution of free modern contraceptives, requires government hospitals to provide reproductive health services, and mandates public schools to teach sex education. Critics have argued the law is anti-life.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court declared the law constitutional.
The two are also credited for a change in attitude towards government among the youth.
Obama’s campaign mobilized American youth to get involved in elections and government. Even Obamacare targeted increased youth signups.
Aquino too has repeatedly encouraged the youth to participate in helping change the Philippines. He considers a shift in attitude among Filipinos – from nonchalance to caring about the country’s future – as one of his administration’s biggest achievements.
Both Obama and Aquino are praised for their integrity. A recent poll of American historians found Obama was rated highly on that trait, while Aquino’s trust ratings continue to be unprecedentedly high midway through his term. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com
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