No categorical commitment from US on China dispute

Natashya Gutierrez

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The United States supports the Philippines' bid for a diplomatic resolution of its territorial row with China but cannot commit military help if war erupts in the disputed area

NEW CHAPTER OF COOPERATION? President Benigno Aquino and US President Barack Obama field questions at a joint press conference in Malacañang Palace on April 28, 2014. Malacanang photo bureau

MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – Unlike his pronouncement on a similar issue involving Japan, US President Barack Obama did not categorically state that his country would defend the Philippines if push comes to shove in its territorial dispute with China.

In a joint press conference with President Benigno Aquino III after their expanded bilateral meeting on Monday, April 28, Obama emphasized that the US supports the Philippines’ position that diplomacy, as provided under international law, and not “coercion and intimidation” is the way to settle such disputes. (WATCH: LIVE: Obama visits Manila, Day 1)

“We don’t even take a specific position on the disputes between nations. But, as a matter of international law and international norms, we don’t think that coercion and intimidation is the way to manage these disputes,” he said.

Obama said that for this reason, the US is “very supportive of President Benigno’s approach to go before the tribunal for the law of the sea, and to seek international arbitration that can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion.”

Asked how the US assured the Philippines of its genuine commitment to countering an increasingly aggressive China, Obama began his response by welcoming the “peaceful rise” of China, with which the US has a “constructive relationship.”

“There is enormous trade; enormous business that is done between the United States and China; a whole range of issues on the international stage in which cooperation between the United States and China are balanced,” he said.

‘US not out to counter China’

The US president added:  “Our goal is not to counter China; our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected, and that includes in the area of maritime disputes,” Obama said.

He also explained that the US does not have any claims in the area.

“We are an Asia Pacific nation and our primary interest is the peaceful resolution of conflict; freedom of navigation that allows for continued progress and prosperity.”

Obama expressed support for the Philippines’ decision to raise its territorial dispute with China before an international arbitral tribunal, and the country’s bid for a binding Declaration on of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

The US president said he has been consistent in his statement during his trip to Asia  that it wants to resolve issues in a “peaceful, responsible” manner, as reducing tensions will allow “countries to focus on what is more important to people day-to-day and that is prosperity, growth, jobs.”

“You know, those are the things that we as leaders should be focused on, need to be focused on. And if we have security arrangements that avoid conflict and dispute, then we’re able to place our attention on where we should be focusing,” he said.

“My hope is that at some point we can work cooperatively with China as well.”

He said during the course of his trip, the message of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines has been the same.

“They want to resolve issues peacefully,” Obama said.

Obama’s statements on the China issue in Japan were observed to be stronger than the pronouncements he made in Manila.

‘Disputes on a few rocks’

During the press conference, Obama said the US might also have some territorial disputes “but we don’t go around sending ships and threatening folks.” He was responding to whether China’s bid for expansion threatened regional peace and stability and whether the Mutual Defense Treaty can be invoked in this regard.

Instead, the US leader said, the US resolves issues “peacefully and diplomatically” like  the Philippines.

“If China, I think, listens to its neighbors and recognizes that there’s another approach to resolve these disputes, what China will find is that they got ready and willing partners throughout the Asia-Pacific region that want to work with them on trade, commerce….It’s inevitable that China will be a dominant power in this region because of its sheer size,” Obama said.

Aquino appeared to take a similar, softer attitude on China, echoing Obama’s pronouncements.

Responding to the same question, Aquino said that from the start, the Philippines’ message to China is that the Philippines is “focused on the greater prosperity for all our respective peoples.”

“Prosperity does not happen in a vacuum. There must be stability. They [China] have responded that the disputes in the West Philippine Sea are not the end-all and be-all of our relationship. We have good cooperation with them on so many fronts. Perhaps, one can even argue that this [dispute] is the only sore point in our relationship,” he said.

Aquino said that the Philippines has tried to build on aspects of its relationship with China “where there is no conflict, and in this particular instance, trying to find a way and means by which we can both achieve our respective goals, which I believe should not be mutually exclusive or rather which should be, inclusive.”

“At the end of the day, we do want to strive for the prosperity of our respective peoples. That I think has to be the primordial concern rather than disputes on a few rocks that are not possible to have inhabited,” he said.

EDCA not a threat

As expected, defense and security were at the forefront of the issues discussed by the two leaders.

Obama’s statement came on the same day that US and Philippine officials signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), amid continued tensions between the Philippines and China over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

The EDCA is a military deal that will give American troops wider access to military bases here.

Aquino said that China should not view the EDCA as a threat, since the Philippines does not have a strong military presence to begin with. Aquino defended the deal saying, “No country should begrudge us our right to attend to our concerns and needs.”

Aquino said that the signing of the EDCA raises the security cooperation of the two countries “to a higher level of engagement, reaffirms our countries’ commitment to mutual defense and security, and promotes regional peace and stability.”

For his part, Obama called the EDCA “a terrific opportunity” for the Philippines and the US to ensure “our navies, our air force are coordinated; to make sure that there is information-sharing; to allow us to respond to new threats and to work with other countries – ASEAN countries, Australia, Japan.”

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.

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.

Agence France-Press earlier reported that at the start of his Asian tour in Japan, Obama has made clear that US defense treaties with Japan covered 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, however, 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. (WATCH: The evolving role of PH in Asia)

Economic partnership

Aside from defense and security, Obama also said he and Aquino talked about increased cooperation for helping victims of typhoon Yolanda, and the country’s economic growth.

In his statement, Aquino thanked the US and the American people for its “solidarity” with the Philippines in the aftermath of typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

“Today, I reiterate formally: the Filipino people will never forget such kindness and compassion. On behalf of my countrymen, I thank the United States of America once more for being a true friend to our people,” the Philippine leader said.

Aquino also thanked the US for its support for his administration’s economic growth programs:

  • $145 million from the US Agency for International Development for the Partnership for Growth framework, which enhances the policy environment for economic growth 
  •  $434 million grant from 2011-2016 for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which supports the implementation of projects on road infrastructure, poverty reduction, and good governance 
  •  An agreement on the terms and concessions for the US to support the Philippines’ request for the extension of special treatment for rice imports until 2017

Aquino mentioned the Philippines’ reinstatement to Category 1 status by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which he said would create economic benefits for both countries.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), was discussed as well and “the Philippines is working to ascertain how participation in TPP can be realized,” Aquino said.

‘Comprehensive meeting’

Aquino called his meeting with Obama and the US delegation “comprehensive, historic, and significant – embodying our shared values and aspirations.”

“It accorded President Obama and myself the opportunity to build on the relations between our countries, and discuss our strategic vision for the future of the Philippines-United States relationship – a relationship that is modern, mature, and forward-looking, and one that allows us to surpass challenges, towards the benefit of our peoples, the entire region, and the world,” he said.

Obama too had warm words for Aquino when he signed the official Malacañang guestbook.

His note, affixed with his signature, read: “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.” 

Aquino and Obama were joined by their respective officials at the expanded bilateral meeting. 

On the Philippine side were Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Trade and Industry Secretary Gregory Domingo, Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, Presidential Management Staff chief Julia Abad, Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma and National Economic and Development Authority chief Arsenio Balisacan.

On the US side were US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, National Security Advisor Ambassador Susan Rice, US Trade Representative Ambassador Michael Froman, Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Robert Nabors, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting Benjamin Rhodes.

The other US officials were Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, Senior Director for East Asian Affairs National Security Council Evan Medeiros, Special Assistant to the President for International Economics Cristopher Smart, and Director for Southeast Asia National Security Council Colin Willett.

Obama arrived in Manila early Monday afternoon, and will return to the US on Tuesday, after a week-long Asian tour that included Japan, South, Korea, and Malaysia. –

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.