Obama’s Visit to the Philippines: The likely issues?

Rodolfo C. Severino

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The US invokes the law when it suits Washington’s interest. China depends on history and chooses to ignore the law in explaining its position, which is based on Beijing’s conception of its national interest.

President Barack Obama of the United States will be visiting the Philippines on April 28-29, 2014, the last leg in a round of visits to East Asia that had been postponed from last year because of dire problems at home and issues pertaining to other regions of the world.

First of all, the postponement does not bother me in the way others seem to be concerned by it and its significance for the United States’ vaunted “pivot” or “re-balancing” to Asia. It only shows that East Asia is relatively tranquil and free of crises when compared with other regions of today’s world. Rather, the US ”pivot” or ”re-balancing” is often couched in terms of the opportunities that East Asia offers to the US.

As is usually the case, President Benigno S. Aquino of the Philippines must have been prepped for his encounters with Obama with the help of thick briefing papers. Without the benefit of seeing those briefing papers or of being present in the discussions with Aquino on the expected summit meetings between the two Presidents, I venture to stress the following:

South China Sea

To set the record straight, the Chinese have never named that body of water as the “South China Sea,” a name given it by Western seafarers many years ago. The Chinese refer to it only as “nan hai” or southern sea. The Vietnamese call it the “East Sea,” perhaps with the intention of claiming it in its entirety.

Whatever its name (let us just call it the “South China Sea,” only because that body of water is how it is generally known in the English-speaking and -writing world, without any legal or propagandistic implications), the Philippine claim, including its appeal to an international tribunal as provided for in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (not ITLOS) to declare as illegal the nine-dash line around the South China Sea on Chinese maps, puts the US in the unenviable position of confronting a dilemma born out of certain asymmetries in Philippine, US and Chinese interests.

The first asymmetry pertains to the 1951 Philippine-US defense treaty, which is deemed by the Philippines to obligate the US to come to the Philippines’ support if the Philippines were attacked in the South China Sea, in this case by China. However, the US has global interests, in several of which it needs Chinese support.

The second asymmetry arises from the fact that China has regional interests beyond the jurisdictional disputes to parts of the South China Sea. Here, there seems to be a disagreement within the Chinese Government, in a way that there are more-visible disagreements within the   US government. Among these disagreements in China’s case is how much weight to give to the political cohesion and solidarity among the states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which neither the Philippines nor China should take for granted.

A third asymmetry arises from the different outlooks of the US and, to some extent, the Philippines on the one hand, and China on the other, on law and history. The US invokes the law when it suits Washington’s interest. China depends on history and chooses to ignore the law in explaining its position, which is, of course, based on Beijing’s conception of its national interest.

PH participation in TPP negotiations

President Obama will likely seek the Philippines’ participation in the negotiations on a possible Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement on international trade, which at present involve as potential parties Brunei Darussalam, Singapore, Chile, New Zealand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Peru and Japan, as well as the US.

In response, Aquino may ask Obama certain questions: What is the real motive of Washington in “hijacking” the TPP process (remember: there was an original TPP involving only Brunei, Singapore, New Zealand and Chile)? Why is China, the second largest economy by some reckoning, not “invited” to join the TPP negotiations? Why was Japan so reluctant to join? How can the other negotiators rely on US concessions if the US negotiators do not have “fast-track” authority to make them? Bottom line: What does the Philippines gain from joining the negotiations?

On the basis of Obama’s answers to the first 4 of these questions, of the Philippines’ own answer to the last one, and of a hard-headed calculation of the Philippine interest in a positive US response to the Philippine interpretation of US obligations under the mutual defense pact as against the likelihood of such a US response, in full awareness of the American interest in Philippine participation, Aquino can make his decision for the Philippines and formulate his reply to Obama’s likely importuning.

Other stops

Aquino may wish to ask Obama about each of the other stops in his East Asian itinerary – Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.

Other possibilities: North Korea and Afghanistan

Obama is likely to assume that the Philippines will continue to join the ASEAN consensus calling on North Korea to stop testing nuclear weapons and for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

The Philippines, however, should point out in this regard that North Korea regards nuclear weapons as the only tool in its arsenal to ward off regime change, which Pyongyang suspects Washington of secretly desiring, and which Kim Jong-un fears most.

Obama may pressure the Philippines to support the US position of withdrawing all combat forces from Afghanistan unless the latter’s leaders allow the conclusion of a new security treaty with the US.

As far as I know, however, Washington or Kabul has never explained what the issue is that prevents current Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from running for President again, from approving Afghanistan’s agreement to such a treaty. I can only surmise that, that issue pertains to the criminal-jurisdiction provisions of the proposed treaty.

In any case, how can the Philippines agree to something about which it knows next to nothing? – Rappler.com

The author, a former ASEAN Secretary-General and Philippine career diplomat, currently heads the ASEAN Studies Centre in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The views expressed here are entirely his alone.

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