By Luis Ramirez – MANILA — U.S. President Barack Obama concluded his weeklong visit to Asia with the signing of a landmark defense agreement with the Philippines that will allow U.S. troops access to Philippine bases.
The sound of a military band and a ground-shaking 21-cannon salute greeted Obama’s upon his arrival at Manila’s Malacanang Palace.
The president is ending his Asia visit on a high note. Eight months of negotiations with the Philippine government culminated with the signing Monday of a deal that will allow for the largest rotation of U.S. troops into the country since U.S. bases here closed more than two decades ago.
The deal, known as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, will enable U.S. forces to train and conduct exercises with the Philippine military.
At a joint news conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino, Obama said the agreement is not about returning U.S. troops permanently, nor is it about dominating this country that it once ruled.
“I want to be very clear. The United States is not trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases,” he noted. “At the invitation of the Philippines, American service members will rotate through Filipino facilities.”
The president also said a new security agreement signed with the Philippines is not meant to “counter” or “control” China. He said the United States has a constructive relationship with China and “our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected, and that includes in the area of international disputes.”
China and the Philippines have competing maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency called the move “particularly disturbing as it may embolden Manila in dealing with Beijing.” Xinhua said by striking a defense deal with the United States, the Aquino administration intends to “confront China with U.S. backing.”
The subject of U.S. troops on Philippine soil is a touchy one for many here, and the agreement sparked violent protests by left-wing activists ahead of the American president’s arrival.
U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg told an audience at the signing ceremony the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement will “promote peace and security in the region.”
Goldberg emphasized no U.S. bases would be built in the Philippines.
“A commitment to democratic governance and international law, the mutuality of benefits for both nations as we develop our individual and collective defense capacities, respect for Philippine sovereignty over all locations covered under the agreement, and the understanding that the United States does not intend to establish a permanent military presence in the Philippines,” he said.
Details of agreement
U.S. officials say the framework agreement is for 10 years, and will allow the U.S. to rotate – but not base – troops, air, and naval resources at Philippine military facilities. The troops will train and conduct exercises with Philippine forces on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security, and other missions.
The Philippine government signed the agreement in the face of China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea, where the Chinese and the Philippines have competing maritime and territorial claims.
The Philippines is shifting its defense strategy to turn its focus from internal security missions to external missions. The U.S. says the new defense deal will allow American forces to help the Philippines build up its deterrence capabilities and that the agreement is not about containing China, but about equipping its Philippine allies to face a range of threats.
The deal does not establish how many troops can rotate into the country at any given time.
The Philippines is the final stop for Obama, who also visited Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia on a trip aimed primarily at reassuring allies that the United States stands by its commitments to help defend them.