WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama assured President Aquino of the US government’s support for Philippine efforts to build a minimum credible defense posture.
A joint statement at the end of Aquino’s three-day official visit to Washington on Friday said both leaders reaffirmed their mutual commitment to the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region and to the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
In the weeks leading to the summit, there was much chatter on both sides of the Pacific that the focus of the Aquino-Obama discussion would be on China and its maritime disputes with neighboring countries.
Indeed they discussed China, but remarkably the two leaders after their 30-minute meeting at the Oval Office did not mention the word at all in their statements to the press.
Obama in his three-minute statement said he and Aquino talked about security issues, economic issues, people-to-people exchanges, and a whole host of regional issues.
It was only toward the end of his statement that he made an oblique reference to the South China Sea.
“As a consequence of the meeting today in which we discussed not only military and economic issues, but also regional issues – for example, trying to make sure that we have a strong set of international norms and rules governing maritime disputes in the region – that I’m very confident that we’re going to see continued friendship and strong cooperation between our two countries,” Obama said.
Aquino uttered 105 words in his statement and not one of them was “China.”
No questions were taken from the press but a joint statement issued after the meeting said Aquino briefed Obama on the situation in the South China Sea.
Chinese and Philippine vessels have been locked in a standoff over fishing rights since April at Panatag Shoal in the South China Sea, referred to by Manila as the West Philippine Sea.
The joint statement said both leaders underscored the importance of the principles of ensuring freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce.
It made no mention of what form of support the US would provide nor did it spell out what new military hardware might be turned over to the Philippines for its credible defense force.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at an earlier meeting with Aquino, announced the US would support the construction, outfitting and training of a National Coast Watch Center in the Philippines.
If the Philippines was hoping for a clear declaration that Washington would come to its aid if shooting broke out at Panatag Shoal it would have been disappointed because all it heard was the old refrain that the US would abide by the MDT.
Obama recognized Aquino’s commitment to peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and to ensuring a peaceful and prosperous future for Mindanao.
Both leaders acknowledged the importance of a strong economic relationship to both sides and committed to redouble efforts to bolster and deepen efforts to expand bilateral trade and promote greater trade and economic integration in the Asia Pacific.
Aquino and Obama expressed firm support for a collaborative diplomatic process among claimants to resolve territorial disputes in a manner consistent with international law and without coercion or the use of force, the joint statement said.
Before his one-on-one with Obama, Aquino was hosted for lunch by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department.
“As I’ve said many times, the United States does not take a position on the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. But we do, however, have a clear interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea,” Clinton said.
She said the US welcomed initial steps taken by Aquino to defuse tensions surrounding the Panatag Shoal and “we encourage continued diplomatic dialogue and further efforts to lessen tension, to disengage, and to resolve the situation peacefully.”
“The United States has been consistent in that we oppose the use of force or coercion by any claimant to advance its claims, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely,” she added.
From the White House, the Aquino party proceeded directly to Andrews Air Force base to fly to Los Angeles.
The President met the Filipino community, among them “American Idol” finalist Jessica Sanchez, whose mother is a Filipina from Samal, Bataan and whose father is a Mexican-American, before flying home. - By Jose Katigbak, STAR Washington Bureau