Obama: US will defend the Philippines

Posted at 04/28/2014 9:07 PM | Updated as of 04/29/2014 5:08 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama offers a toast as he attends a State Dinner with President Benigno Aquino (R) of the Philippines at the Malacanang Palace in Manila, April 28, 2014. Photo by Larry Downing, Reuters.

MANILA (UPDATE) - US President Barack Obama steered clear of China on Monday night as he said that the United States' commitment to defend the Philippines is iron-clad.

This, after the US leader failed to categorically say during an earlier joint press conference with President Benigno Aquino whether the US would defend the Philippines from China.

“Through our treaty alliance, the United States has an ironclad commitment to defend you, your security and your independence,” Obama said during his toast during the state dinner prepared for him at the Palace.

During his earlier joint press briefing with Aquino, Obama did not give a firm commitment to defend the Philippines if China attacks it over maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea.

Obama was asked twice if he will give the same commitment that he gave to Japan last week.

Japan, like the Philippines, is a treaty ally of the US, and both have maritime disputes with China.

Japan has the Senkaku Islands while the Philippines is in a tug of war over islands, shoals, and atolls in the West Philippine Sea.

"We welcome China’s peaceful rise. We have a constructive relationship with China. There is enormous trade; enormous business that is done between the United States and China; So our goal is not to counter China; our goal is not to contain China," Obama said.

He added that the US does not take a specific position on the disputes between nations.

"But, as a matter of international law and international norms, we don't think that coercion and intimidation is the way to manage these disputes. And for that reason, we’re very supportive of President Benigno’s approach to go before the tribunal for the law of the sea, and to seek international arbitration that can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion," Obama said.

"My hope is that, at some point, we’re going to be able to work cooperatively with China as well," he added.

China has rejected joining the arbitration case the Philippines filed before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

When asked if the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines will apply in case of war with China, Obama was also evasive.

"Our message to China consistently in a whole range of issues is we want be a partner with you in upholding international law. In fact, larger countries have a greater responsibility in abiding by international norms and rules because when we move, it can worry smaller countries if we don’t do it in a way that’s consistent with international law," he said.

A comparison of the language of the US treaties with Japan and the Philippines shows major differences.

Article 5 of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan reads, "Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes."

Article 4 of the 1951 MDT between the Philippines and the US says, "Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes."

Article 5 of the MDT also says, "For purposes of ARTICLE IV, an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific."

The maritime disputes between the Philippines and China covers areas in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) -- like the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal, the Reed Bank and the Second Thomas Shoal.

China stakes its claims on a map drawn up by the Kuomintang, while the Philippines bases its claims on the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea and its exclusive economic zones.

'EDCA BEYOND CHINA'

Meantime, Obama also said that the newly signed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) has very wide goals and is beyond China.

"To engage in training, engage in coordination—not simply to deal with issues of maritime security, but also to enhance our capabilities so that if there’s a natural disaster that takes place, we are able to potentially respond more quickly. If there are additional threats that may arise, that we are able to work in a cooperative fashion."

Aquino, meanwhile, said China shouldn't take the agreement negatively.

“First of all, I think China shouldn’t be concerned about this agreement, especially if you look at what are being contemplated, for instance, training; for instance, in disaster relief operations. I think the statement that America has been making with regards to Ukraine is the same message that has been sent to China, and I guess not only by America but so many other countries," he said.

"China itself has said repeatedly that they will and have been conforming to international law and the rest of the world is, I think, saying ‘we are expecting to confirm by actions that which you have already been addressing by words’—and that is to adhere to international law."

ORDER OF SIKATUNA

During the state dinner, Obama was conferred the Order of Sikatuna with the rank of Rajah, the highest award of diplomatic merit that President Aquino can give in recognition of his help during times of natural disaster, his support for rule of law in Southeast Asia, and for "working with us to fundamentally raise the defense capacity of our country."

In his toast, Aquino said "Tonight, I have the distinct pleasure to confer the highest rank, that of Raja or Grand Collar, on you, Mr. President, for your leadership and policies that assisted the Philippines in times of natural disaster, for helping uphold stability and peace by means of the rule of law in Southeast Asia, and for working with us to fundamentally raise the defense capacity of our country.”

Aside from talking about the alliance of the 2 countries, Obama also paid tribute to President Aquino’s parents, as well as Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao.

"I’m told that you have a word to describe this—that inner feeling at the core of the person’s being: 'kalooban.' We see the spirit in a family that’s given itself to this country. There is no greater nobility than offering one’s life to the nation. And Mr. President, your fathered offered his life, so that this nation might be free," Obama said.

"Your mother and the citizens of this great nation who took to the streets showed the world that true power lies with people. And with the canonization of Pope John Paul II, we also honor the world that the Catholic Church played in supporting the Filipino people and their desire for freedom,” he added.

"And finally, we feel our spirit, our "kalooban" in a friendship between our peoples that expresses itself in so many ways. There is our mutual obsession with basketball. There is our mutual admiration for Manny Pacquiao—even if sometimes his fight against Americans doesn’t turn out the way we’d like. There is our shared pride in the millions of Filipino-Americans who contribute to our nation every single day," Obama said.

LUMPIA, ADOBO AT WHITE HOUSE

Obama also talked about the Filipina executive chef in the White House. “There is one in particular I am grateful for. Cris Comerford, our executive chef at the White House. Cris was born in Manila. She still has family here. Thanks to her we, in the White House, enjoy the occasional lumpia and adobo."

The state dinner was hosted in Malacanang’s Rizal Hall.

It was attended by the who’s who of Philippine society and politics.

Seated at the Presidential table with the 2 leaders were Vice-President Jejomar Binay, Senate President Franklin Drilon, House Speaker Belmonte, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, former Presidents Joseph Estrada and Fidel Ramos, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, US Ambassador to Manila Philip Godlberg, and US Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Rob Nabors.

Also spotted in the event were Aquino's family members led by sisters Ballsy, Pinky, Viel and Kris; Senators Bongbong Marcos, Loren Legarda, and Gringo Honasan; and members of the Cabinet and congressmen.