US President Barack Obama arrives in Manila on Tuesday with his much-vaunted “pivot to Asia” again overshadowed by events in Europe, the Middle East and politics at home.
Obama will touch down in the Philippines’ capital city with the world’s focus on the murderous attacks in Paris claimed by the Islamic State group and soul- searching about how to counter it in Syria and Iraq.
The US President is set to go on board a former US Coast Guard patrol ship now serving as the flagship of the Philippine Navy as part of an event upon his arrival, a ranking State Department official announced.
“Shortly after his arrival, the President will spend his first event focused on our alliance with the Philippines and our maritime security assistance to the region,” Daniel Kritenbrink, acting deputy assistant secretary at the US Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said.
“This event will be, will include a visit to a Philippine naval ship, where the President will meet with US and Filipino sailors and senior Filipino defense officials. The event will showcase US maritime security assistance to the region,” Kritenbrink added.
The warship was identified as the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a Hamilton-class high endurance cutter used to be called as the USCGC Hamilton when it was in the US Coast Guard service from 1967 to 2011.
After the ship was decommissioned, it was transferred to the Philippines under the Excess Defense Articles and the Foreign Assistance Act.
The BRP Gregorio del Pilar was involved in a standoff with Chinesevessels in 2012 at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal when it tried to apprehend eight Chinese fishing vessels that were found poaching in the rich fishing ground.
The US President will be in Manila for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
Obama will be coming from Turkey where he attended the G-20 Summit.
He is scheduled to meet with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for a bilateral meeting in Manila, with President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Wednesday and with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday evening.
“This will be their [Obama and Turnbull] first meeting, and their agenda will be extensive given the close cooperation we have with Australia on everything from the counter-ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) coalition to maritime security to TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership),” Kritenbrink said.
The long-planned Asia trip had been designed to underscore America’s role as a “Pacific power” and timed to coincide with high-profile regional summits, which Obama has made a point of attending.
“When we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu,” said senior foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes half-jokingly, explaining the administration’s policy.
Before the Paris attacks, National Security Adviser Susan Rice previewed Obama’s trip as an opportunity to herald a vast trans-Pacific trade deal and efforts to promote a “rules-based order” amid tensions in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
But Obama has spent the last few days talking about Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State, and will likely do so again with Asian leaders.
That focus may actually sit well with some Asian nations, according to Ernest Bower of Washington think-tank CSIS.
“Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei–have real and immediate concerns about citizens who have left to fight in Syria and Iraq and will be returning,” Bower said.
“After Paris, most Asian countries will be looking to the US for leadership in the counter-ISIS [Islamic State] fight. This will underline the US global security role.”
For his part, Obama may point to majority Muslim nations in Southeast Asia as examples of how economic development can put a lid on radicalism.
Still, another sidetracked trip to the region is a far cry from early in Obama’s term when the Hawaii-born commander-in-chief confidently declared himself “America’s first Pacific president.”
Throughout his administration, key aides have been frustrated at events in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere perennially dominating presidential agendas and security briefings.