U.S. President Barack Obama and Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III met for the first time in the former’s Oval Office at the White House last week. They discussed bilateral issues on security, defense and economy, among others, in the wake of the growing tension between China and the Philippines over their disputed claims on Scarborough Shoal.
Judging from their statements after their meeting, there was no specific commitment made by Mr. Obama to assist the Philippines in case of an attack from China. In fact, Mr. Obama and earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed to their avowed pledge of neutrality, citing the importance of the South China Sea in world navigation and trade so it must be kept away from those who want to disturb peace and tranquillity within the vast waters.
If there’s any consolation, however, both President Obama and Secretary Clinton made mention about the 60-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty of the US and the Philippines wherein both countries vowed to help one another in terms of security and defense and the need to abide by its provisions. Moreover, Mr. Obama acknowledged that he and Mr. Aquino were “trying to make sure that we have a strong set of international norms and rules governing maritime disputes in the region.” President Obama reiterated the announced pivot by the United States back to Asia, as he reminded Mr. Aquino and everybody that, in fact, the US considers itself as a Pacific power.
Morever, they announced that the US and the Philippines were working closely together to increase information and intelligence exchanges and coordination on maritime domain issues. As such, the US announced support for the construction, outfitting, and training of a new National Coast Watch Center in the Philippines, presumably to monitor intrusions in South China Sea and West Philippine Sea.
While the United States does not take a position on the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, it emphasized it has a clear interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the region. Along this line, Secretary Clinton called on ASEAN and China to conclude their efforts to reach consensus on a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
In the name of peace and progress, we support this call but will China do the same? The answer remains to be seen.