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US to boost Philippine defence

Publication Date : 09-06-2012

 

Pledge comes on eve of Aquino-Obama meet

 

The United States pledged to help the Philippines step up its defences in the face of a rising China, as President Benigno Aquino III and President Barack Obama prepared to meet at the White House amid Philippine warnings that “weakness invites aggression”.

Obama’s meeting with Aquino at the Oval Office was scheduled for 2pm on Friday (2am on Saturday in Manila) and expected to last  between one and  one-and-a-half hours, according to Malacañang.

“History shows you that weakness invites aggression and the more we have an ability to defend ourselves, the less we’ll be subject to actual aggression by anybody,” Presidential Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang told reporters.

“Given those strategic directions of both our governments, we are looking at ways to enhance our cooperation to our mutual benefit on the security side. That’s going to be a large focus of the discussion,” Carandang said.

He said the confrontation between the Philippines and China over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) would be discussed at the meeting.

Hours before the Aquino-Obama talks, the top US military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey,  said that during his talks with Aquino on Monday in Manila, he spoke about expanding cooperation with the former US colony beyond recent efforts focused on fighting Islamic insurgents.

The Philippines “has been inward-focused on its internal terrorism and insurgent issues for some time—for decades really—and so [has] a very limited capability to project power or to influence activities around it,” said Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“We think that they need some of that, particularly in maritime security,” Dempsey said.

The United States has already been helping to upgrade the notoriously antiquated Philippine military and Aquino has agreed to let a greater number of US troops rotate—but not set up bases—in the archipelago.

Butting heads

The cooperation comes as the Philippines sees particularly tense relations with China, which has butted heads with a number of its neighbors over territorial disputes in strategic waters.

Friction escalated in April when Chinese and Philippine vessels approached  Panatag  Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), which lies near Luzon. Manila says the rock formation falls within its exclusive economic zone. China claims the shoal along with nearly all of the West Philippine Sea.

Aquino, well regarded by the US government, has raised the profile of the Philippines in Washington through his pledges to tackle corruption and to boost its military relationship with the United States.

Credible deterrence
Carandang noted that the United States had made “a strategic rebalancing” of its security posture.

“They’re moving their forces into Asia,” he said. “They want to have a larger presence in the Asia-Pacific region because this is where the economic and political center of the world, they say, will shift in the coming decades.”

He said this coincided with Aquino’s desire to develop a “minimum credible deterrent capacity”.

“Over the decades our military capability, particularly our naval capability, has fallen behind that of our neighbors,” Carandang said.

No new US bases
Carandang declined to give specifics on how much military hardware or capability would constitute a minimum credible deterrent capability but said this would include surveillance equipment and an increased ability to patrol the country’s shores more effectively.

He repeated Aquino’s statement that the military hardware the Philippines would acquire would not necessarily come from the United States alone.

But he stressed that the Philippines had no intention of acquiring offensive weapons and that all the military hardware it would acquire would be of a defensive nature.

Carandang said that under no circumstances would Aquino’s talks with Obama include a discussion about the return of US bases to the country or “basing rights”.

Instead, the discussions would likely centre on the United States having greater access to Philippine seaports and airports for use on a “rotational” basis, Carandang said.

“What we’re looking at is a lot more mobile, a lot less permanent and probably a lot more frequent than what we have now,” he said.

Future relationship
Aquino’s visit highlights the Philippines’ growing importance in US strategic thinking as both countries worry about China’s intentions.
“The meeting between President Aquino and President Obama will lay the groundwork for the future of the strategic partnership between the Philippines and the United States,” said Jose Cuisia, the Philippine ambassador in Washington.

Aquino was also to meet senior US lawmakers for “discussions on our bilateral economic and defence cooperation, the shift in the focus of the United States toward the Asia-Pacific and ways to revitalize our alliance,” Cuisia said.

Washington’s “rebalancing” of forces to the Asia-Pacific region has accelerated under Obama as a response to China’s rapid military modernization and growing assertiveness in that region.

Subic and Clark
A US official said Washington saw Aquino as a leader who is “trying to do the right thing” to tackle the corruption, cronyism and red tape that have held back the economy of his nation of more than 90 million people.

No new bases are envisioned under the US plan, although 2,500 US troops will rotate through and train in Darwin, Australia. Any new arrangements with the Philippines would be smaller than the Australian program, officials said.

Asked if former US facilities on Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base were under consideration, Dempsey said: “I wouldn’t say specifically Subic and Clark, although they are obvious locations were we to increase our exercise and rotational presence.”

After high-level bilateral security and diplomatic talks in late April, the Obama administration pledged to increase its annual foreign military sales program to the Philippines to $30 million, about three times the level of the 2011 programme.

“We’ve been working with the Philippines on military modernisation for 12 or 13 years, very intensively,” said Walter Lohman, a Southeast Asia expert at Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “The only thing that has changed is the urgency of this and the seriousness the Philippines has shown under the Aquino administration,” he said.

Plaudits for Aquino
The United States is formally neutral on West Philippine Sea territorial issues. But Washington’s promotion of multilateral diplomacy to handle the disputes clashes with China’s insistence on bilateral talks with its weaker neighbours.

“We want to empower international rules of the road in maritime security, not to isolate any one nation or to take a position on a claim—for instance, in the [West Philippine Sea]—but rather to make sure that claims can be resolved peacefully,” said a senior US official.

Aquino, the son of democracy heroes, has emerged as a willing partner of the United States as it looks to build a stronger presence in Southeast Asia.

 

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