Obama: Philippine deal to hasten disaster help

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014


MANILA (Updated) -- A new deal that will give American soldiers temporary access to more Philippine camps will also enable faster responses to disasters like Yolanda, United States President Barack Obama said in Manila on Monday.

“I want to be very clear:  The United States is not trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases,” he said of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed on Monday on the last leg of his Asian tour.

“At the invitation of the Philippines, American service members will rotate through Filipino facilities. We’ll train and exercise more together so that we’re prepared for a range of challenges, including humanitarian crises and natural disasters like Yolanda,” Obama said.

Although the deal is being perceived as a US effort to counter Chinese aggression in the region, Obama said his message to Beijing is that America wants to partner with China in upholding international law.

“Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of international disputes,” he said at a news conference with President Benigno Aquino III.

Obama visits Philippines
A TOAST TO AN OLD ALLY. US President Barack Obama stands to speak at a state dinner with President Benigno Aquino III in Malacañang Palace. “Renewing US leadership in the Asia-Pacific” was a key theme in his remarks, as was encouraging “bayanihan” in facing security challenges with its allies. (AP)


President Aquino said that “humanitarian assistance and disaster response” remain important components of the cooperation between the two countries.

“We look forward to the continued cooperation of the United States and the rest of our partners in the international community as we undertake the task of building back the communities affected by typhoon Yolanda,” Aquino said.

‘Stop threats’

Obama’s overnight visit to the Philippines is the last stop on a weeklong Asia tour that also included Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.

At each stop along his tour, Obama reaffirmed the US treaty commitments to defend its Asian allies, including in their territorial disputes with China. He said in Manila that the US takes no specific position on those disputes, but believes China should resolve disputes with its neighbors the same way the US does—through dialogue.

“We don’t go around sending ships and threatening folks,” Obama said.

The Philippines has struggled to bolster its territorial defense amid China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea, which Obama flew over on his way to Manila.

Chinese paramilitary ships took effective control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground off the northwestern Philippines, in 2012. Last year, Chinese coast guard ships surrounded another contested offshore South China Sea territory, the Second Thomas Shoal.

Engagement

President Aquino, standing next to Obama in front of a lush backdrop of tropical plants, said the new agreement “takes our security cooperation to a higher level of engagement, reaffirms our countries’ commitment to mutual defense and security, and promotes regional peace and stability.”

Still, the increased US military role drew consternation from some Filipino activists, who say the agreement reverses democratic gains achieved when American military bases were shut down in the early 1990s, ending a nearly century-long military presence in the former US colony.

Some 800 of those activists burned mock US flags and chanted, “No-bama, no bases, no war” on the road leading to the gates of the palace where Obama met with Aquino.

Others burned an effigy of Obama riding a chariot pulled by Aquino, depicted as a dog.

In Cebu, about 80 members of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) and its affiliated organizations marched to the corner of Colon St. and Osmeña Blvd. Monday noon.

The rally caused some traffic congestion, but police and traffic personnel were fielded to manage the crowd and guide motorists. Participants threw tomatoes at a picture of President Aquino, while others stepped on caricatures of the two presidents.

The rally lasted an hour.

Sikatuna

Seeking to allay concerns, Obama said at the outset of his remarks that the US wasn’t trying to reclaim bases or open new ones. Instead, he said, the agreement will improve maritime security and hasten response to regional natural disasters.

At a state dinner later at the palace, Aquino presented Obama with the Order of Sikatuna, a national award recognizing exceptional service to the Philippines and its global relations. Obama was given the rank of Raja, a distinction bestowed only on heads of state, and said he was deeply honored.

“I accept it in the spirit in which it has been bestowed, with a commitment to continuing to deepen the bonds between our two great nations,” Obama said. Some 300 guests watched from long tables adorned with baskets of tomatoes, red peppers, figs and local produce.

Under the new military agreement, Filipino facilities would remain under Philippine control and US forces would rotate in and out for joint training, as some already do.

The Philippine Constitution bars permanent US military bases, although hundreds of American military personnel have been deployed in the southern Philippines since 2002 to provide counterterrorism training to Filipino soldiers fighting Muslim militants.

China’s clout

Many details, including the size and duration of the US military presence, remain to be worked out with the Philippine Government. The White House has declined to say which places are being considered under the agreement, but that the long-shuttered US facility at Subic Bay could be one of the locations.

While the US military will not pay rent for local camp areas, the Philippines will own buildings and infrastructure to be built or improved by the Americans and reap economic gains from the US presence, a primer said.

US Ambassador Philip Goldberg and Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin signed the agreement shortly before Obama’s arrival.

The Philippines’ efforts have dovetailed with the US Government’s intention to pivot away from years of heavy military engagement in the Middle East to Asia, partly as a counterweight to China’s rising clout.

“The Philippines’ immediate and urgent motivation is to strengthen itself and look for a security shield with its pitiful military,” Manila-based political analyst Ramon Casiple said. “The US is looking for a re-entry to Asia, where its superpower status has been put in doubt.”

What was missing?

An organization working against trafficking in the Philippines said that the sexual exploitation of children and women should have been tackled during the state visit.

“While bolstering the Philippines’ external security and defenses is critical, it is equally vital that internal security for our vulnerable women and children continue to be strengthened,” said International Justice Mission (IJM) Field Office Director Samson Inocencio in a press statement.

He said that survivors of typhoon Yolanda who have been displaced in the central Philippines have become vulnerable to trafficking.

Under the Aquino administration, the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) has reported that 99 persons have been convicted of trafficking in persons from July 1, 2010 to July 1, 2013.

Inocencio said the efforts in the fight against trafficking in the Philippines “deserve recognition.”

IJM started Project Lantern in Cebu to determine the “effectiveness of a law enforcement-based strategy in protecting children from sex trafficking.”

“There is still a lot of work to do. Strong, coordinated, and fully operational anti-trafficking units are essential in stopping the sale of children, particularly with online child sexual exploitation cases, as these take place behind closed doors and can be difficult to detect,” said Inocencio. (AP/Sun.Star Cebu)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on April 29, 2014.

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