Obama ignores China’s call to keep sea dispute at bay
US President Barack Obama put more pressure on China on Wednesday as he underscored the need to take “bold steps” to prevent the Asian giant from continuing with its reclamation activities and “militarization” of disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) which, he said, threatens freedom of navigation.
Ignoring Chinese President Xi Jinping’s calls for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting to focus on economic ties, Obama demanded “bold steps to lower tensions” between China and its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors.
In a statement following a bilateral meeting with Philippine officials, The US President said they have agreed to increase Washington’s maritime assistance to the Philippines “to record levels” in support of a “rules-based” approach to settle the dispute.
“We discussed the impact of China’s reclamation and construction activities on regional stability. We agreed on the need for bold steps to lower tensions including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea,” he added.
Beijing has turned a series of reefs and outcrops in disputed waters — mostly within the Philippines’ internationally sanctioned exclusive economic zone — into artificial islands capable of hosting facilities with military purposes, alarming other claimants.
Aside from the Philippines, APEC members Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Taiwan have rival claims to parts of the sea, which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas resources.
Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of its Asian neighbors on the basis of a 9-dash line concept, which Manila questions before a UN tribunal.
Upon his arrival, the US leader vowed to provide two additional vessels for the Philippine Navy to increase its maritime effectiveness.
“As President [Benigno] Aquino [3rd] indicated, disputes need to be resolved peacefully, that’s why the United States support the Philippines’ decision to use arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to peacefully and lawfully address differences,” Obama pointed out.
“Here in the Philippines, you are pursuing reforms and good governance; together, we support a rule-based order in the region, which is critical to regional security and the global economy. Now, our rebalance to the Asia Pacific is rooted in our treaty alliances including with the Philippines,” he said.
Obama on Tuesday reiterated Washington’s “iron-clad” treaty obligations to defend the Philippines — and other allies — and vowed to boost military ties through new defense cooperation agreements similar to one it had with Manila that was assailed before the Philippine Supreme Court (SC).
A few weeks before the start of the APEC meetings in Manila, The Manila Times reported that the High Court will most likely declare constitutional the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that Manila and Washington had signed.
Opponents of the EDCA were quick in criticizing the leak, saying the would-be ruling was meant as a “gift” to Obama. The SC later announced that the ruling on the case would be out by December.
“[The EDCA] when implemented will bring our militaries even closer together, and we are especially committed to ensuring maritime security in the region, including freedom of navigation,” Obama explained.
He described the Philippines and the US as “great allies” and went on to express his gratitude “for my partnership with President Aquino who has been a valuable and trusted friend to the United States.”
“This is an occasion of me to reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the security and defense of the Philippines. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder: ‘Balikatan,’” he said, referring to the annual military exercises between the armies of the two countries.
But wary of drawing the United States or its allies into direct conflict with China, Obama also stressed the need to settle disputes under the rule of law.
“Disputes need to be resolved peacefully,” he said, backing the Philippines’ decision to seek UN arbitration in several disputes with China.
China has so far refused to recognize the UN panel’s authority.
Beijing hits back
Beijing also on Wednesday saidPresident Obama should not get involved in disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
“The United States should stop playing up the South China Sea issue, stop heightening
tensions in the South China Sea and stop complicating disputes in the South China Sea,” Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, said at a regular news briefing in Beijing.
“No country has the right to point fingers at” China’s construction activities, he added.
US ships to be given to PH
The White House has identified the two ships that the US leader has pledged to donate to the Philippine Navy shortly after his visit to the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar.
These ships are the high-endurance US Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell and research vessel R/V Melville.
The USCGC Boutwell is the sister ship of the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (formerly the USCGC Hamilton) and BRP Ramon Alcaraz (the ex-USCGC Dallas).
The Boutwell is the third ship of the Hamilton class cutters.
“This will provide the Philippines the ability to maintain greater maritime presence and patrols throughout its EEZ [exclusive economic zone]. We are also in the process of transferring the research vessel R/V Melville to support naval research and law enforcement capabilities,” the White House said.
The Philippines remains the largest recipient of maritime security assistance, and will receive a record $79 million in bilateral assistance of the Fiscal Year 2015 funds allocated for developing Southeast Asian maritime capabilities.
This assistance is largely focused on building the training and logistical base for expanding the Philippine Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force ability to conduct operations within waters off the Philippines’ coasts.
“We are assisting with naval maintenance capacity building as well as providing interdiction vessels, naval fleet upgrades, communications equipment and aircraft procurement,” the White House said.
The US also vowed to continue to support the National Coast Watch System and assist the Philippines through the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF), building capacity in Philippine maritime vessel maintenance, training, law enforcement support and intelligence assistance to expand the country’s ability to detect, track and interdict where necessary criminal and terrorist elements involved in the smuggling of sensitive items and illicit goods.
With AFP and PNA