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Obama weighed, found wanting in commitment

Japan and the Philippines are so similar in two respects. Both have mutual defense pacts with the United States, both are under threat from Chinese territorial aggression. So when President Barack Obama started a four-nation swing of East Asia by vowing to aid the Japanese in case of Chinese invasion, Filipinos expected to hear the same for them.

They were disappointed, however. For Obama was non-committal, when asked if America would come to their defense too should Beijing make good its threat forcibly to eject a Philippine Navy vessel from a nearby shoal.

Obama’s double standard was painfully obvious. In Tokyo he had stated outright that the disputed Senkaku Isles belong to Japan, so China should lay off. Six days later in Manila, he quibbled that America takes no side in territorial tiffs nor is out to “contain China,” so he hoped that the latter would “listen to her neighbors.”

Obama’s waffling quickly rekindled doubts about America’s sincerity and ability to keep obligations to treaty allies. It also puts in question President Noynoy Aquino’s granting America a ten-year stay in Philippine military bases of its choice. Obama tried to sound forceful later, telling American and Filipino soldiers in joint exercises that US defense commitment is “iron-clad.” Still, it rang hollow, compared to P-Noy’s hefty gift of an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Signed just hours before Obama arrived in Manila, the EDCA supposedly is in implementation of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. That’s why P-Noy, risking a fight in the Supreme Court, sees no need for Senate ratification. It gives US sailors and flyboys ports and facilities from which to launch ships, fighters, and spy drones. In exchange, Filipino troops are to get help in disaster rescue, some warfare training, and old equipment that the Americans might discard. As if to highlight the lopsidedness, Obama hesitated about having his same visiting forces defend the Philippines against Chinese aggression. The feeling among thinking Filipinos is that P-Noy gave away everything for nothing.

It doesn’t help that signatories say the EDCA does not return US military camps in the Philippines. Before the US was expelled in 1991 from seven directly controlled naval and air bases, it at least paid Manila annual compensation. It was also compelled then to purchase Philippine goods, and hire tens of thousands of locals. The EDCA would give America free use of Philippine real estate and facilities — under a mutual defense treaty that Obama can only pay lip service to, vaguely at that.

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Observers theorize that Obama’s changing tunes may have to do with the differing wordings of the treaties with Tokyo and Manila. The former, fairly recent, binds the US not only to help Japan build up its security, but also to actually fight for Japan’s mainland, islands, and seas. The latter, America’s first treaty in Asia, refers only to mainland Philippines and America’s Pacific-side territories. But there can be no other definition of mutual defense, when it comes to attacks against allies’ military vessels or facilities. For America to invoke neutrality in territorial disputes is a copout. More so in the case of China occupying Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, both within the Philippines 200-mile exclusive economic zone under international law but 700 miles from China’s nearest province.

Also a factor is the view of hawks in Washington that Manila is an unreliable partner. Unlike Japan, which hosts US troops in Okinawa despite local protests, the Philippine Senate evicted the US bases before a 99-year lease expired. For a decade thereafter, the Pentagon withheld military aid from Manila. Military ties newly had been patched when Malacañang in 2004 broke ranks from the US-led coalition against global terrorism to secure the release of an illegal migrant worker taken hostage by Iraqi insurgents.

Yet America too has been unreliable. It only stood by when China occupied Mischief in 1995 and Scarborough in 2012. A US admiral had the temerity to scold a Filipino counterpart for supposedly letting China into Mischief while the US Pacific Fleet was away. Today China is gearing to grab the oil-rich Reed Bank off Palawan, and tow away the Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre from Second Thomas Shoal nearby. Last New Year’s Day, Hainan, the province to which Beijing entrusts the administration of its claim over the entire South China Sea, imposed a rule that all foreign fishing vessels must seek permission to sail. It was like the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that China imposed two months earlier over the East China Sea that encompasses the Senkakus and Okinawa. America has been silent. Obama could only say during his visit that the US supports Manila’s filing for arbitration with the United Nations. It is generally acknowledged that the UN tribunal would be unable to enforce any ruling; Beijing scoffs at its very existence.

Obama slipped in his balancing act. He journeyed to Asia to assure allies of US fealty, while dispelling Beijing’s fears of US resistance to its rise. He left the Philippines disillusioned with America, and China infuriated. China’s official state and communist organs editorialized that Obama is encouraging Philippine intransigence. Beijing’s warnings of punitive actions would make Manila more worried.

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