U.S. President Barack Obama landed in Manilla today ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and immediately made his way to a Philippine navy frigate to address the press. Reuters:
Shortly after Air Force One touched down in Manila, Obama boarded the Gregorio del Pilar, a Philippines navy frigate that was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter until 2011 but on Tuesday flew the flags of the two allies.
“We have a treaty obligation, an iron-clad commitment to the defense of our ally the Philippines,” he said, flanked by about two dozen U.S. and Philippines uniformed navy personnel. “My visit here underscored our shared commitment to the security of the waters of this region and to freedom of navigation.”
He did not mention China but the symbolism of his visit was hard to miss: the ageing vessel is now a mainstay of the Philippine Navy, operating around the Spratly islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by both Manila and Beijing.
The Chinese have been trying to keep the South China Sea off the APEC agenda, hoping instead to have the meeting focus on economic development. Moreover, ahead of the summit, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin struck a menacingly sour note in complaining that China was barely tolerating having dozens of its islands and reefs occupied by foreign powers. “The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied by neighboring countries”, he said. “But we haven’t done this. We have maintained great restraint with the aim to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Manila has particularly irked Beijing recently by successfully persuading an international arbitration tribunal to hear its maritime territorial disputes, and the Philippines scored another victory yesterday when it formalized a military aid agreement with Japan. Slowly but surely, the multilateral U.S.-backed response to Beijing in the South China Sea is starting to take real shape. Let’s hope the White House stays the course.