US listens to the Phl
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 (The Philippine Star) - January 23, 2015 - 12:00am

‘We listen when the Philippines speaks,’ the US State Department official quipped.

Without much fanfare, a middle-level meeting of government officials from the Philippines and the United States quietly took place on neutral ground in Manila. It was held neither at the Department of Foreign Affairs nor the US Embassy but at the Diamond Hotel in Roxas Boulevard. Actually, the five-star hotel is located midway between the offices of the DFA and the embassy, both in Roxas Boulevard.

The just concluded two-day 5th Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD) hosted by the Philippines was co-chaired by DFA Undersecretary Evan P. Garcia and Undersecretary of National Defense Pio Lorenzo F. Batino. They met with their respective counterpart American government officials, namely, Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of the US Department of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and assistant secretary David Shear from the US Defense Department.

Of the two US officials, Russel is more media-savvy. Russel created quite a stir when he described China’s activities in the South China Sea as a “wholesale reclamation and source of clear anxiety and instability in the region.” In a press conference at the New York Foreign Press Center held last September, Russel was quoted saying the “wholesale reclamation is an example of unilateral action that changes the status quo” in the disputed territorial waters where the US and other countries not involved in this conflict must pass through the sea route.

In a joint press conference at the end of the dialogue here, the Philippines and the US panels expressed common concern over developments in the South China Sea that are inconsistent with the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and international law. The two sides announced in broad terms that they had an in-depth exchange of views on regional and global developments, including measures to ensure that the alliance continues to contribute to regional peace and stability.

“The two sides reiterated that international disputes in the South China Sea should be settled in accordance with international law, and through diplomatic and other peaceful means, including the use of international arbitration. We expressed concern about the ambiguity and potential breadth of some maritime claims and emphasized that maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features in accordance with the international law of the sea, as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The two sides expressed opposition to unilateral measures that escalate tensions in the region,” they declared in the joint statement.

The holding of the BSD comes at the heels of the latest discovery of new reclamations being undertaken by China around the disputed islets, atolls, reefs and shoals in the overlapping maritime territorial waters in South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

The joint statement issued after the BSD also reaffirmed the “steadfast commitment” of the US to the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951 with the Philippines as well those contained in the November 2011 Manila Declaration and in the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

“We decided to continue mutually beneficial efforts to reinforce our respective national and collective defense capabilities, including countering terrorism; to strengthen maritime security and maritime domain awareness; and to enhance disaster risk management, disaster preparedness, and rapid response,” the joint statement further read.

The US Embassy organized a pre-departure roundtable interview for Russel, with us among the select few invited. The first thing I asked Russel before we started the interview was to ask him if he was able to watch the live telecast earlier that day of President Obama’s state of the union address – or SOTU as the US social media call it for short – before the US Congress. It’s the counterpart of our own State of the Nation Address (SONA).

“Yes,” he replied with a smile. Obviously, the US officials watched first the live telecast of Obama’s SOTU before sitting down with their Philippine counterparts on the last day of their BSD. When they faced the DFA and international media after their meeting, Russel picked up the lines said by President Obama from the SOTU.  

“We believe bigger nations can’t bully the small,” Russel said, referring to China in comparison to the Philippines and other claimant countries in the South China Sea dispute. 

Actually, he was obviously quoting from a foreign policy declaration of President Obama in his SOTU in relation to Russia’s role in the Ukraine problem. “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small – by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies,” President Obama told the US Congress.

At the start of our own tete-a-tete with him, Russel underscored his latest participation in this annual activity was “indicative” of the active involvement of the US State Department to further deepen relations with the Philippines.

He reiterated the relationship of the two countries is not just based on mutual interests on security and defense matters but also embraces a comprehensive aspect in economy and people-to-people relations as well on both regional and global cooperation.

On a personal note, Russel added, this was his second time to sit down and participate on BSD with the Philippines and his third trip in Manila. Russel first came here when he accompanied his immediate boss, US State Department Secretary John F. Kerry in official visit to Manila in December 2013. The second was when he was part of the delegation to the official visit to Manila by President Obama in April last year.

After our 30-minute roundtable interview last Wednesday at the Dignitary’s Lounge at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Russel flew to Kuala Lumpur in the next leg of his official trips to Bangkok and Phnom Penh and return to Washington on Jan. 28.

In what could be a patronizing footnote, Russel described holding the BSD first in the Philippines this year indicated the top priority that the US places upon its chief ally in this part of the world.

“We listen when the Philippines speaks,” the US State Department official quipped.

But, of course, it depends on who speaks for the Philippines.


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