|US PRESIDENT Barack Obama meets President Aquino at the sidelines of the APEC Leaders Summit in Manila.
By ALFRED GABOT and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE
MANILA (PHLTODAYUSA via PhilAmPress) — After more than a year, United States President Barack Obama is in Manila again, this time for the November 18-19 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Summit with bilateral meetings with other heads of states and leaders of the 21-nation group by the sides.
The APEC meetings this year in the Philippines which started in January and held in different venues in cities in the country has for its theme “Building inclusive economies, building a better world.” Except for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou who are represented by other officials, all heads of states and government are in Manila for the meetings. Many of the leaders like Mr. Obama will later fly to Malaysia for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting.
Chile’s first woman President Michelle Bachelet was first leader to arrive for the APEC gathering, the second to be hosted by the Philippines, the first being in 1996 with then President Fidel V. Ramos. Others who have arrived include Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Thailand Prime Minister (PM) Prayut Chan-o-cha, Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter Charles Paire O’Neill, Australia Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, Canada Prime Minister Pierre James Trudeau, and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The APEC meetings created monstrous traffic jams, forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights, stopped work and classes in Metro Manila and nearby areas and triggered the proclamation of holidays which all resulted to losses in the millions of pesos, putting to question the capability of the administration to host such a major international event even as others welcomed the event for the eventual benefits that will be reaped from the meetings.
The US President, who came in on board the Air Force One from Turkey where he attended the G20 summit, immediately flew on board the presidential helicopter to the US-made Philippine frigate, BRP Gregorio del Pilar (formerly the US Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton) which was anchored at the Manila South Harbor. The President inspected the ship and reiterated the US commitment to bolster Asia Pacific region’s security amidst the growing tension with China over the disputed claims on islands and reefs in South China Sea and West Philippine Sea.
Later, after meeting Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III on the sidelines of the APEC summit, President Obama said China must stop land reclamation in the disputed South China Sea and reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the defense and security of the Philippines, one of the parties to the dispute.
Obama, speaking on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in Manila, said he looked forward to working with all claimants to the waterway to resolve their disputes.
“We have a treaty obligation, an iron-clad commitment to the defense of our ally the Philippines,” Obama said at the Manila North Harbor rites. flanked by about two dozen US 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.”
Mr. Obama also pledged to provide the Philippines with two more warships to add to its BRP Gregorio del Pilar. The ships worth $250 million are part of the US government’s larger plan to increase maritime security assistance to their allies and partners across the Pacific Region, the American leader said.
Obama said one of the ships that the US would donate would help map territorial waters while the other would be for long-endurance patrols.
Meanwhile, the Philippines and Vietnam signed a joint statement on the establishment of strategic partnership particularly on economic, agricultural, maritime and defense and security issues.
Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh signed the agreement during the bilateral meeting between President Benigno Aquino III and Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang at the Malacanang Palace.
The Philippines and the United Mexican States also signed agreements in the areas of economy, tourism and anti-narcotics cooperation to enhance bilateral ties that started centuries ago with the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto signed an agreement with President Aquino on avoidance of double taxation to “enable trade and financial activities” between the two nations.
Obama arrived in Manila amid the growing tension between the Philippines and China over the latter’s continued reclamation and construction of military facilities, ports and airports on islands and reefs being disputed by Manila and Beijing, some of which are within the Philippine territory and its economic zone as defined by the United Nations. Other islands, shoals and reefs are also being claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
In his speech besides the Philippine ship, Mr. Obama virtually challenged China as he stressed that US has an “ironclad commitment” to defend the Philippines amidst the tension, the same statement he made when he first spoke at the Philippine Army headquarters in Fort Bonifacio during his first visit in 2014.
“The United States has been committed to the security of this region for more than 70 years. We have a treaty obligation, an iron-clad commitment to the defense of our ally the Philippines, who can count on the United States,” Obama stressed.
President Aquino later said at a press conference after meeting the US leader that he and President Obama “reaffirmed our treaty alliance, the strategic partnership and the historic friendship between our countries.”
” I am confident that this firm foundation of broad cooperation and shared values will enable the Philippines and the United States to face the challenges of the present and those in the decades to come,” he said.
“Our defense and security alliance commenced more than 60 years ago; to this day, it remains a cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific,” Aquino said. .
Aquino added: “As a treaty ally of the United States, the Philippines receives security assistance from the US Government, particularly through Foreign Military Financing (FMF). We recognize, with the deepest appreciation, the significant contribution to our efforts by the United States—contributions that help us ensure that we can ably respond to current security challenges, particularly in the area of maritime security and maritime domain awareness.”
“President Obama and I likewise had a discussion on maritime security, including on the maritime disputes in the region, and how international law should remain the framework for behavior of all countries and for the peaceful resolution of disputes,” Mr. Aquino said.
“I take this opportunity to reiterate the Philippines’ view that the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea must be continuously upheld, consistent with international law,” he added.
At the same time, the White House said in its website, “Obama is committed to safeguarding customary international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce, and peaceful management and resolution of disputes — the central principles on which the region’s security and prosperity rest–including through a global program of freedom of navigation operations.”
It emphasized that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, and they support the right of all countries to do the same.
The donation of two more ships in the Philippines, the White House added, is a testament of the US’ close cooperation with their allies as they work to build the capacity of regional partners to address potential threats in their waters through enhanced maritime capability and maritime domain awareness.
The White House said: “We will promote the use of third-party dispute settlement mechanisms, such as those under the Law of the Sea Convention, to underscore that international law should be the sole basis for maritime claims in the region; we applaud the Philippines’ use of these mechanisms in dealing with law of the sea disputes in the South China Sea.”
It further said that during the trip to Manila, “President Obama will continue to urge all claimants in the South China Sea to halt further land reclamation, construction of new facilities, and militarization of features they occupy, in order to reduce tensions and create diplomatic space for lasting, lawful, and peaceful solutions to emerge.”
While in Manila in 2014, President Obama also warned China against using force in territorial disputes and said Washington would support Manila in the event of an attack.
Earlier this year, Obama urged China to stop its massive reclamation projects in disputed areas in the South China Sea, calling them “counterproductive” during a meeting with young leaders from the Association of Southeastern Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the White House.
The United States has repeatedly expressed concern over China’s growing assertiveness in the region, specifically reclamation on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, subject to overlapping territorial claims from Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
“Our visit here underscores our shared commitment to the security (of the) waters of this region and freedom of navigation,” Mr. Obama said at the Manila South Harbor as the Arleigh Burke-class USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) anchored in Manila Bay for a five-day mission in general support of APEC.
While in Manila, Obama held a bilateral meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with cooperation on counter-ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] coalition, maritime security, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on top of their agenda.
Mr. Obama also joined President Aquino in a bilateral meeting where the two presidents discussed the South China Sea dispute and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries.
The US President said American help was demonstrated in the recent construction of a Coast Watch Center which was funded by US grants and instrumental in helping the country protect its maritime borders along with the former US cutter.
“This watch center was built with US grants. The ship that I just toured, former US coast guard vessel, helps the Philippines respond to disasters, perform counter-terrorism missions and patrol the South China Sea,” Obama stressed..
“More capable navies and partnership with the United States are critical for the security of this region,” Obama said.
A senior official in Beijing disputed claims by the US and the Philippines, pointing out that China was the real victim of the waterway dispute because other countries (not China) had illegally occupied islands there.
The statement was made as China’s President Xi Jinping arrived in Manila for the APEC Leaders Summit and bilateral talks.
The South China Sea and West Philippine Sea disputes were said to be not part of the APEC meeting agenda but Obama talked about it immediately upon arrival for the meetings.
Xi also arrived in Manila on Tuesday, but did not make any public comments.
Mr. Obama actually did not mention China in his speech at the Manila South Harbor but the symbolism of his visit was hard to miss: the BRP Gregorio del Pilar 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 US leader later also brought the dispute up in his meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, telling reporters it was important to uphold the “basic principle that these issues should be resolved by international norms and rule of law, and peacefully settled.”
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said China was the real victim in the South China Sea dispute as “dozens” of its islands and reefs had been illegally occupied by three of the claimants. He did not name any countries.
“The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied,” Liu told reporters in Beijing. “But we haven’t done this. We have maintained great restraint with the aim to preserve peace and stability.”
At press time, the APEC Senior Ministers concluded their meeting with a joint statement, pushing for new actions to advance economic growth agenda in the region.
In the joint statement of Ministers from the 21 member economies, the APEC committed to deliver initiatives in these key agenda: fostering micro, small and medium enterprises’ (MSMEs) participation in regional and global markets; investing in human capital development; and building sustainable and resilient communities.
In particular, there are four series of measures that were identified during the AMM:
–APEC Disaster Risk Reduction Framework which aims for adaptive and disaster-resilient economies;
–APEC High-Level Policy Dialogue on Food Security and Blue Economy Plan of Action which targets to ensure that the region is meeting its food demand as well as make food supply more sustainable and protecting the region’s marine resources vital for food security;
–Progress Report on Implementation of the Beijing Roadmap for APEC’s Contribution to the Realization of the Free Trade Agreement of the Asia Pacific; and
–Progress Report on Implementation of the APEC Strategic Blueprint for Promoting Global Value Chains Development and Cooperation
In a press briefing after the AMM, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario highlighted two major achievements for APEC 2015.
APEC Ministers will endorse to Leaders the APEC Services Cooperation Framework (ASCF) to develop deeper understanding on services sector as well as providing sound policy and regulatory settings.
Ministers will also endorse to Leaders the APEC Strategy for Strengthening Quality Growth through governance, social cohesion and environmental impact of economic activities.
Del Rosario noted that these are the Philippines’ proposals to APEC which are now carried as overarching initiatives in the region’s premier economic forum along with the support for multilateral trading system, Bogor goals, and anti-corruption agenda.
“APEC 2015 adopted the theme of ‘Building Inclusive Economies, Building a Better World.’ This theme stems from the idea that APEC’s pursuit of free and open trade and investment in the Asia Pacific region should empower and provide tangible benefits to both developed and developing economies and to a wide cross-section of people especially those in the vulnerable sector,” Trade and Industry Secretary Gregory Domingo said.
The joint statement of APEC Ministers will be submitted to APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting that will kick off on Wednesday in Manila. (PHLTODAYUSA/PhilAmPress)