BEIJING — When U.S. President Barack Obama arrives Monday in Manila, he’ll seek to reassure Filipinos that the United States would stand behind them in any confrontation with China, without doing so in a way that riles Beijing.
It will be a delicate dance. China is the United States’ second-largest trading partner, and it has territorial ambitions off its coasts that will be difficult for Washington and its Asian allies to contain fully.
Yet the Philippines isn’t just one of those allies. It is a former U.S. colony and has been a strategic asset for the U.S. military since the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century. An estimated 3.4 million Filipino-Americans live in the United States — more than 40 percent in California.
That’s why Obama’s two-day visit to the Philippines — his first and the first by a U.S. president since 2003 — will be watched closely on all sides of the Pacific.
“Obama’s trip is quite significant because of the current tensions over the South China Sea,” said Patricio Abinales, a Philippines specialist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. “The Philippines needs this visit if only as a symbolic act of support from an ally.”
Obama traveled Saturday from South Korea to Malaysia, where he became the first U.S. president to visit since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. Unlike the Philippines, Malaysia has a close and long-standing relationship with China, although it has been strained by Malaysia’s much-maligned investigation into a missing Malaysian airliner with 239 people aboard, two-thirds of whom were Chinese.
In an interview Friday with the Star, a Malaysian newspaper, Obama reminded Malaysians that the United States was one of the first countries to join in what was then a rescue effort. “U.S. Navy ships, aircraft and personnel remain on the scene, assisting in the search,” he told the Star. “Our FBI is working closely with Malaysia on the investigation into what caused the aircraft to disappear.”
In the Philippines, Obama will find a nation where U.S. relations have steadily improved since the early 1990s, when the United States closed the Subic Bay naval base, its last military installation in the Philippines. That closure was prompted by the eruption in 1991 of the Mount Pinatubo volcano, which covered the base with ash, and the Philippine Senate’s refusal to approve a treaty that would have extended the U.S. lease at Subic.
During his two-day visit, there is a chance that Obama will sign a long-negotiated security agreement with Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III. The pact would allow greater access for U.S. troops, ships and aircraft in the Philippines, which lacks a military capable of deterring aggression from China or other countries.
But Abinales and some other experts doubt that the pact will be signed during Obama’s visit, the president’s last stop on an eight-day swing through four Asian nations. The Philippines government hasn’t finished vetting the agreement, and leftists and labor unions are rallying against an increased U.S. military presence in the archipelago. On Wednesday, Philippine police used a water hose against about 100 protesters demonstrating outside the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Despite the protests, the 99 million people who live in the Philippines generally have a high regard for Americans. When Pew Research asked people worldwide last year about their attitudes toward Americans, 85 percent of the Filipinos surveyed had a favorable view, the highest percentage of all countries, including the United States.
“Frankly, I am surprised it hasn’t been signed yet,” said Aileen Baviera, professor of Asian studies at the University of Philippines.
Without a signed pact, Baviera said, Aquino will be hoping for the kind of statement Obama issued during his stop in Japan, reaffirming military support for an old ally and possibly committing to helping the country shore up its own defenses.
The potential remilitarization of the Philippines is largely a response to China’s growing naval might and the claims it has made on roughly 90 percent of the South China Sea, which for centuries has been a rich fishing area for both nations and now potentially harbors vast deposits of oil and natural gas.
Beijing also has a keen interest on waters leading to the Strait of Malacca, a choke-point through which China receives oil shipments and transports goods to the Middle East and Europe.
The Philippines has attempted to assert its own claims. On one disputed reef, the Ayungin Shoal, it’s stationed a handful of marines on a beached vessel, the Sierra Madre. Chinese naval boats have reportedly interfered with the resupply of the Sierra Madre, and Philippine naval boats have skirmished with Chinese fishermen in another disputed area, the Scarborough Shoal.
In recent months, Aquino has been increasingly critical of Chinese leaders, even comparing them to Adolf Hitler before World War II. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’?” the Philippines’ president said in an interview with the New York Times in February. “Well, the world has to say it — remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”
Following up on threats, the Philippines filed a case against China over the South China Sea at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague. Beijing condemned the action and is unlikely to comply with the tribunal’s ruling even if it goes against China. But Manila’s action has demonstrated that, nearly alone among members of the Association of South East Asian Nations, it is willing to stand up to China, regardless of the economic consequences.
In a briefing for reporters before Obama’s four-nation Asian visit, administration officials rejected suggestions that the president is seeking to contain China. “The U.S. has a $500 billion bilateral trading relationship with China. How could that possibly be containment?” said Evan Medeiros, special assistant to the president and senior director for Asian affairs.
Yet Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, acknowledged that a major goal of Obama’s visit is to “reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the security of the Philippines.” He said the president also hopes to deepen ties with the Filipino people and “a large number of Filipino Americans, who’ll be very excited about the visit.”
U.S. investments in infrastructure, schools and disaster aid are one reason the United States is seen as a friend to the Philippines, where 20 percent of its people live in poverty. Abinales, who hails from the southern island of Mindanao, says a successful USAID program there has engendered goodwill among Muslims on the island, torn by decades of clashes between insurgents and Philippine troops.
Remittances from overseas Filipino workers in the United States and other countries are another reason, accounting for $25 billion, nearly one-tenth of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Filipinos recovering from last November’s Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,200 people and displaced 4.1 million others, have also received U.S. assistance. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the United States by February had spent $87 million helping communities in the Philippines recover from that typhoon.
By contrast, China had donated only $1.8 million.