President Obama’s final stop on his four-nation Asia trip was the Philippines. Landing in Manila on April 28, it was his first state trip to the US treaty ally. According to the White House, the purpose of the visit was to “reaffirm the United States’ commitment to the alliance, and to discuss with President (Benigno S.) Aquino our strategic vision for the bilateral relationship.”
Obama met with his Filipino counterpart shortly after arriving. Their meeting was immediately followed by a joint press conference from Malacañang Palace, where he and President Aquino gave remarks on some of the major expansions in US-Philippines economic engagement and security cooperation.
A key element to the US government’s economic engagement with the Philippines is the Partnership for Growth (PFG). Going beyond a traditional development assistance approach, this initiative seeks to help the Philippines address the constraints to sustained economic growth, such as lack of transparent governance and inadequate infrastructure. Following a 5-year joint action plan that began in 2011, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Millennium Challenge Corporation is providing a combined $800 million to support PFG projects.
Other areas in which the US is expanding economic engagement highlighted in the press conference included the recent decision by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to update the Philippines’ aviation safety rating to category 1 – which will allow for the establishment of more flights, routes, and opportunities for tourism and business travel between the two countries – and the news that the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) has removed the Philippines from the piracy watch list in light of significant strides made to protect intellectual property rights. Finally, president Obama announced that the US Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, will lead a business delegation to the Philippines this summer, punctuating the message of a “whole of government approach” to enhancing the bilateral economic relationship.
Receiving greater media attention however, was the completion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed by US Ambassador to the Philippines Phil Goldberg just prior to President Obama’s arrival. This 10-year agreement, intended to “update and strengthen” US-Philippines defense cooperation, would give US forces increased temporary access to Filipino military facilities, facilitate preparation for humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) missions through exercises and prepositioning of relief supplies, and increased opportunities for joint-training and capacity building with the Philippines military.
In his remarks, President Obama sought to make it clear that this agreement does not represent an attempt by the United States to build new bases or reclaim old bases. The United States ran bases in the archipelago for decades before being asked to leave by the Philippine government in the 1990s. Senior Director of Asian Affairs for the National Security Council, Evan Medeiros, downplayed role of China in spurring the deal, pointing instead to the difficulty of the Philippines to respond to Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan. The ability of the US forces to most effectively reach the affected areas was a catalyst for the agreement.
At the press conference, President Aquino spoke to the US response to the typhoon disaster, which in addition to monetary assistance included US military assets, civilian disaster response teams, and American volunteers. “On behalf of my countrymen, I thank the United States of America once more for being a true friend to our people,” he remarked.
Following a state dinner in which Obama praised Filipino cuisine, the countries’ mutual love of basketball, and “our shared pride in the millions of Filipino-Americans who contribute to our nation every single day,” the US president spent his final day in the Philippines recognizing a lesser known segment of US-Philippines ties.
Speaking to an assembly of US and Filipino armed forces at Fort Bonifino on April 29, the 70th anniversary of the battle of Leyte in World War II and the beginning of the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation, President Obama recalled the history of Americans and Filipinos fighting side-by-side. He described a recent effort by his administration to grant full recognition and compensation benefits to nearly 20,000 Filipino veterans from World War II who fought for the United States but were never recognized by the US government.
As his speech transitioned from remembering the past to describing the importance of the US-Philippines alliance to the US vision for a peaceful Asia Pacific, President Obama reaffirmed US support for the 60 year-old mutual defense pact: “Our commitment to defend the Philippines is ironclad and the United States will keep that commitment, because allies never stand alone.”