Winner takes all – Obama gets his way in the Philippines

Presidents Aquino and Obama

Presidents Aquino and Obama at an earlier meeting, in 2011. by Official Gazette of the Philippines under Wikimedia Commons

It’s as if time stopped in Manila as President Barack Obama ended his four-Asian-nation swing here in the Philippines.

Obama arrived in Manila on 28 April. He stayed in a $7,000-a-night hotel suite for his less-than-24-hour visit. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III prepared a state dinner of lobster, baby sprouts and fiddle fern with lemon jam; smoked mussels and smoked mussels; and sweet banana in rich tomato and coriander sauce.

For dessert, there was coconut lychee ice cream for Manila’s guest of honour.

Yet, after all the festivities, Obama left without any specific commitment on the part of the United States to help the Philippines, which is now caught in geopolitical tensions with China.

‘Will the US defend the Philippines if the territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea becomes an armed conflict?’ asked a local journalist during a briefing with Obama, but the US President’s answer side-stepped the question.

‘We do not have claims in this area territorially. Our primary interest is the peaceful resolution of conflict, freedom of navigation that allows for continued progress and prosperity... We don’t take specific positions on the disputes between nations,’ Obama replied.

Yet, as pointed out by journalist Raissa Robles, he took a different stance in Japan, when he said that the disputed Senkaku Isles belong to Tokyo and that Beijing should respect this.

On the other hand, President Aquino gave a hefty gift to the US: the controversial Enhance Defense Co-operative Agreement (EDCA).

The agreement, which drew flak from militant lawmakers and those who voted to expel the US base from the Philippines in 1991, had been signed just hours before Obama arrived in Manila.

Essentially, in the words of newspaper columnist and political analyst Jarius Bondoc, the agreement gives the US navy and airforce 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 be given 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 [President Aquino] gave away everything for nothing,’ Bondoc said.

Philippine government officials insist that the controversial agreement does not return US military camps in the Philippines.

Yet, the agreement would allow US troops to use Philippine facilities.

What exactly the Philippines will get from the agreement remains to be seen.