Obama's Visit to the Philippines and Southeast Asia

ASEAN

United States President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit the Philippines this October as part of trip to Southeast Asia to attend the APEC Summit, the ASEAN-US Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS). His attendance to the EAS is part of his government’s commitment to rebalance to Asia. This rebalance policy aims to ensure that the US will still play a role in regional affairs even as China rises and the regional security environment changes to accommodate that rise.

The rebalance policy has three aspects. First, its diplomatic aspect emphasizes the presence and participation of US senior officials in ASEAN and other regional forums including the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the EAS. Part of this commitment has been the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation that enabled the US to participate in the EAS, the opening of a permanent mission to ASEAN headed by an ambassador, and greater engagement with Myanmar and other countries in ASEAN.

Second, the rebalance has a significant economic component in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which complements or as some analysts assert, challenges ASEAN’s own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as the primary vehicle of regional economic and trade relations. Third, the military component of the rebalance seeks to place 60% of US forces in the region.

Obama’s visit is meant to bolster the ties between the two treaty allies. Although this is Obama’s first visit to the Philippines, high level government officials, the most recent being Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, have visited the country on various occasions to discuss issues of common concern as well as the regional security environment.

While official visits and summits between government leaders are not the primary areas for resolving lingering issues, they contribute to the strengthening of ties between the countries involved. In this case, Obama’s visit serves US interests in two ways: it guarantees continued US presence in the region, at least for the remainder of his term, and it affirms the increasingly closer relations between the US and the Philippines in the light of heightened tensions in the West Philippine Sea.

Issues
Nevertheless, there are issues that President Benigno Aquino III’s government should raise with the US. In particular, many observers have already pointed out that the US has not been categorical about its security commitments to the Philippines in case of armed aggression by another country.

Indeed, the language of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries is ambiguous if compared to the US’ security treaties with Japan and South Korea. While the US rightfully does not have to answer hypothetical questions about future conflicts and its security commitment, it is but fair for the Philippines to receive assurances from Obama on the issue. After all, the Philippines’ strategic importance in the “first island chain” is undeniable especially if China actively seeks to displace the US as the primary power in East Asia.

Another issue is the country account level of Foreign Military financing. The fund allocated for the Philippine is minuscule compared to those given to other US allies. Although the level of FMF is expected to rise from $30 million in 2013 to a projected amount of $50 million for 2014, it is nonetheless small compared to what the US gives to countries that are not even its allies.

To a large extent, the amount that the US will give is dependent on the ability of our diplomats to present our case as well as the capacity of the country to effectively absorb and maintain the weapons and defense equipment. Nevertheless, a case could be made for greater FMF allocation since the US House of Representatives’ resolution on the Department of State’s foreign operations and related programs appropriations for FY 2014 expressed the possibility that more funds could be made available.

Challenge of Statecraft
Obama’s upcoming trip to Southeast Asia will be his second, exclusive to the region, and indicates that he values the region’s overall role in US foreign policy. Nonetheless, Philippine foreign policymakers must be constantly reminded that whatever assurances and aid that the US President offers, they are not gifts but means to advance US interest. As long as the Philippines and the US’ strategic concerns converge, then our country is assured of US assistance. Still, the Philippines must set its own strategic direction where it will be able to fully and effectively use its diplomatic and other governmental resources to further the national interest.

This can only happen if our leaders are able to look beyond parochial concerns and rise to the challenge of statecraft. Our leaders should have the strategic vision of where the Philippines should be and this demands that they have a deep appreciation of the intricacies of a changing international system that has evolved after World War II and an understanding of the complexity of domestic issues. This would enable them to make intelligent decisions on crucial and critical defense and foreign policy issues.

The current administration has tried to respond to existing security challenges to the best of its abilities within the limited set of material capability that the country possesses. Continuity, however, should be the name of the game for the time being. This is critical and must be among the prime considerations of the country’s political elite as they look forward to the next presidential election.

Looking at our political landscape from outside, one is left wondering whether Philippine leaders value statesmanship and have the national interest in mind. Pressing international and regional issues will continue to challenge the country and the changing global environment will not wait for our leaders. If they are not able to effectively provide us with policies and strategies to confront these challenges, the Philippines will eventually pay the price for our leaders’ neglect.

Julio Amador III is an Asia Studies Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington and a Fulbright Graduate Scholar at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not represent any institutional stand.

This article is first published in Rappler September 22, 2013