MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – The President of the United States has arrived in Manila.
US President Barack Obama arrived in the Philippines on Monday, April 28, and disembarked from Air Force One at 1:41 pm at AGES Aviation Center, Balagbag Ramp in Pasay City.
He is in the Philippines for a two-day state visit. (READ: Obama in Manila: What to expect)
The US president was met at the airport by Philippine officials led by Vice President Jejomar Binay, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, and Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia.
Obama, the 7th sitting US president to visit the Philippines, flew from Malaysia, his 3rd stop in a week-long Asian tour that also brought him to Japan and South Korea.
The last US president to conduct a state visit to the Philippines was George W. Bush in October 2003.
Obama shook hands with the Philippine officials before boarding Marine One, the presidential helicopter, and headed for Malacañang where an arrival ceremony awaited him. (WATCH: LIVE: Obama visits Manila, Day 1)
Arriving in Malacañang at 2:14 pm, Obama was welcomed by President Benigno Aquino III in front of Bonifacio Hall. Aquino brought the state guest to the hall for a few minutes, then re-emerged to begin the arrival honors.
Before proceeding to the main Palace building to sign the guestbook at the Malacañang Reception Hall, the US president was introduced to Philippine Cabinet officials who attended his arrival ceremony.
Obama initiated an impromptu meet-and-greet with some Palace employees who were gathered at the side of the Palace building to welcome him.
On the Palace guestbook, Obama wrote, “I thank President Aquino and the people of the Philippines [for] welcoming me. May America’s oldest alliance in Asia always be renewed by our friendship and mutual respect.”
The two leaders will have a brief one-on-one meeting at the Music Room before moving to the Aguinaldo State Dining Room for an expanded bilateral meeting that is expected to last a little less than an hour.
They are expected to discuss their countries’ strategic partnership on political and security cooperation, trade and investments expansion, tourism and development cooperation, deepening people-to-people ties, the rehabilitation of areas affected by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The two leaders are scheduled to hold a joint press conference at the President’s Hall after the meeting.
From Malacañang, Obama will head to Hotel Sofitel where he is billeted, and where he will have a meet-and-greet with US embassy personnel before returning to Malacañang for a state dinner at 7:20 pm. The two presidents are expected to deliver remarks on Philippines-US relations when they make their respective toasts.
Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement
Coming to Asia, the United States was expected to argue that its rebalancing policy – of withdrawing US military, economic and human resources from Middle East wars and deploying them to emerging Asia – remains on track.
The maritime disputes over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) will be on top of the agenda, with the Philippines craving reassurance that the US is prepared to support Manila if push comes to shove with Beijing over their territorial claims.
Just hours before Obama’s arrival, the two countries signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a military deal that will give American troops wider access to military bases here.
The Philippines has accused China of becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claims to the sea, and has called on the United States for greater military as well as diplomatic support.
The new agreement, signed in by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US ambassador Philip Goldberg, will not allow Washington to establish a permanent base in the Philippines or bring in nuclear weapons to the country.
New era in defense ties
But it represents a new era in defense ties, allowing more of the high-profile war games that are regularly conducted by the long-time allies and for some US military hardware to be stationed on Filipino soil.
The Philippines hosted two of the largest overseas US military bases until 1992, when Manila voted to end their lease at a time of growing anti-US sentiment.
With rising regional disquiet over the implications of China’s rise, the Philippines has sought greater military ties with Washington in recent years.
In comments to ABS-CBN ahead of his arrival in Manila, Obama sought to reassure the Philippines about US support, referring to the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two nations.
“The United States stands by its allies, in good times and in bad,” Obama 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.”
Anti-China sentiments run high in the Philippines, which is locked in a showdown with the Asian giant over disputed atolls in the South China Sea, part of a proliferation of maritime hotspots that has stoked Asian tensions.
During his Asian tour, Obama has repeatedly warned that small nations should not be bullied by larger ones, a clear reference to China’s increasingly sharp geopolitical elbows.
“Disputes need to be resolved peacefully, without intimidation or coercion, and… all nations must abide by international rules and international norms,” Obama said in Malaysia Sunday.
Opening his trip, Obama made clear that US defense treaties with Japan did cover disputed islands long administered by Tokyo in the East China Sea, which are known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China.
The Philippines has its own territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea –notably over Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), an outpost in the remote Spratly Islands.
PH-US defense treaty
US officials have not been so specific over their obligations towards Manila on territorial disputes – but it is clear they do not believe they are covered by the US Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines.
“With respect to some of the difficult territorial issues that are being worked through, it is hard to speculate on those because they involve hypothetical situations in the South China Sea,” said deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes.
“The US-Japan agreement has very specific coverage of territory under Japanese administration. Some of the disputes in the South China Sea raise more hypothetical circumstances.”
In essence, the difference lies in the fact that Japan already administers the Senkakus/Diaoyus while the status of other islands and reefs is disputed – even though they lie within the Philippines’ internationally mandated exclusive economic zone and far closer to Filipino landmass than Chinese.
Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, also have overlapping claims to the sea, believed to contain vast deposits of natural gas and oil.
Obama has repeatedly stressed that despite Beijing’s territorial disputes with its allies, his Asia rebalancing strategy is not aimed at containing China’s rise to regional, and perhaps global superpower status.
But US officials also make clear that they blame China for hiking tensions in the region over claims often well outside its territorial waters.
“We oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or aggression by any state to advance their maritime territorial claims,” said Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council.
PH security preps
In Manila, the route of Obama’s convoy from the airport to the Palace has been lined with Philippine and American flags. The entrance to Malacañang bears a massive billboard welcoming Obama to the country.
The National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) will be on full alert during the two-day visit. Increased security was noticeable Monday morning, with officers deployed in areas surrounding Malacañang, and in areas where anti-US protests are being staged.
All 4 terminals of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) were closed from 12:30 to 1:30 pm for Obama’s arrival.
Obama is expected to leave the Philippines and return to the United States on Tuesday, April 29. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com