President Barack Obama on Monday backed the Philippines’ bid to settle maritime disputes with China through arbitration but stressed that the United States has no intention to contain China.
“I have been consistent throughout my travels in Asia. We welcome China’s peaceful rise. We have a constructive relationship with China. There is enormous trade
, enormous business that is done between the United States and China, a whole range of issues on the international stage in which cooperation between the United States and China [is]balanced,” Obama said in a joint press conference with President Benigno Aquino 3rd at Malacañang.
Obama, who is in Manila for the first time, stressed that his visits to other Asian countries, including Japan and Malaysia this week, are not intended to intimidate China. He noted that the US’ “primary interest” being an Asia-Pacific nation is the “peaceful resolution of conflict, freedom of navigation that allows for continued progress and prosperity.”
“So our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected, and that includes the area of maritime disputes. We do not have claims in this area territorially,” the US leader said.
Obama emphasized that Asian countries must work “cooperatively” with China in the future as he threw support behind the move by Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member-countries that have overlapping claims to territories in the Spratlys in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to forge a Code of Conduct to end the disputes.
“My hope is that, at some point, we’re going to be able to work cooperatively with China as well. Because our goal here is simply to make sure that everybody is operating in a peaceful, responsible fashion. When that happens, that allows countries to focus on what is more important to people day-to-day and that is prosperity, growth, jobs,” he said.
The US resident maintained that when these disputes are settled peacefully, “then we’re able to place our attention on where we should be focusing.”
Obama lauded President Benigno Aquino 3rd for pursuing arbitration before the International Tribunal on the Laws of the Sea (Itlos) and for avoiding provocative actions that might trigger armed conflict. China and the Philippines are at loggerheads over “turfs” in the South China Sea, specifically Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
Philippine and Chinese naval ships have been locked in a prolonged standoff in the waters around these shoals.
Obama made it clear that while the US does not “take a specific position on the disputes between nations,” it considers these disagreements as “matters of international law and international norms.”
“We don’t think that coercion and intimidation is the way to manage these disputes.
And for that reason, we’re very supportive of President Benigno’s approach to go before the tribunal for the laws of the sea, and to seek international arbitration that can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion,” he pointed out.
Aquino echoed the US leader’s remarks, saying they agreed on such position during their discussion after Obama’s arrival in Manila on Monday afternoon.
“Both President Obama and I share the conviction that territorial and maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific region should be settled peacefully, based on international law. We affirm that arbitration is an open, friendl, and peaceful approach to seeking a just and durable solution,” he added..
Aquino said he and the US president “underscored the importance of the full and effective implementation of the Declaration of Conduct and the expeditious conclusion of a substantive and legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.”
“All toward fostering peace and stability in our part of the world,” he pointed out.
Aquino welcomed the US’ participation in regional mechanisms such as the Asean Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit. He said even the enhanced defense cooperation agreement that was signed also on Monday “reaffirms our countries’ commitment to mutual defense and security, and promotes regional peace and stability.”
Meanwhile, Obama said China has a “greater responsibility” for being one of the “larger countries” in the world because when it moves, smaller countries become worried.
“I do think that as President Aquino said very persuasively that China as a large country has already asserted that it is interested in abiding by international law. And really our message to China consistently in a whole range of issues is we want to be a partner with you in upholding international law. In fact, larger countries have a greater responsibility in abiding by international norms and rules,” he added.
Like China and the Philippines, Obama said the US has territorial issues with Canada for instance over “some islands and rocks” and the issue goes back to as old as the 1800s.
“But we don’t go around sending ships and threatening folks. What we do is we sit down and we have some people in the room. It’s boring, it’s not exciting but it’s usually a good way to work out these problems and work out these issues,” he explained.
“And I think that all the countries that I had spoken to in the region during the course of my trip, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and now the Philippines, their message has been the same, everywhere I go, which is, They would like to resolve these issues peacefully and diplomatically,” Obama said.
Arbitration, he added, “is a sound one.”
Obama said it will be good for the region and the world if China will successfully develop and lift its people from poverty.
“There are a lot of people in China. And the more they are able to develop and provide basic needs for their people and work cooperatively with other countries in the region, they are going to strengthen the region, that’s not going to weaken it,” according to the US leader.
Obama expressed confidence that China will eventually embrace arbitration to resolve disputes and realize that it has “ready and willing partners throughout the Asia-Pacific region that want to work with them on trade and commerce and selling goods and buying goods.”
He noted that China becoming a dominant power in Asia is “inevitable,” judging by its “sheer size.”
“Nobody, I think, denies that. The question is just whether other countries in the region are also able to succeed and prosper on their own terms and attend to the various interests and needs that they and their people have as well. And that’s what we support,” Obama said.