Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Philippine-US security ties to grow stronger – analyst

WASHINGTON, D.C.: The United States will not only become more involved in Asia-Pacific security, but will also deepen its security partnership with the Philippines, a US analyst said.

According to Ernest Bower, senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the April 30 “2+2” ministerial meeting between Manila and Washington signals a “new plateau” in bilateral relations consistent with emerging security realities in Asia.

In that meeting, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and their US counterparts, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, engaged in wide-ranging discussions on strategic bilateral relations.

Bower said the meeting came at a time when the United States is giving priority to strengthening and deepening ties with its treaty allies and expanding its partnership with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

The fact that the meeting took place days after Filipino and American troops conducted Balikatan [shoulder-to-shoulder] joint military exercises, and amid the ongoing standoff between Philippine and Chinese maritime vessels in an area just 120 nautical miles from the Philippine coastline, “underlines some of the new realities for US engagement in Asia,” he added.

“Given the current standoff at the Scarborough [Panatag] Shoal and the steady rise in cooperation between Washington and Manila, the reaffirmation of the Manila Declaration was intended to send a strong signal of US support for the Philippines, and the Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] claimants in general, in their attempts not to be bullied by Beijing in the South China Sea [West Philippine Sea],” said the analyst in “Critical Questions”, a paper he wrote with CSIS Southeast Asia Program research assistant Gregory Poling.

Although Washington made it clear that it does not take sides on territorial disputes, Bower said that it had reassured its oldest Asian ally by committing to expand port visits, increasing troop rotations and joint trainings in the Philippines, and helping Manila achieve its desired “minimum credible defense capability.”

Following the “2+2” meeting, Washington agreed to triple its foreign military financing allocation (FMF) to the Philippines from $11.9 million last year to $30 million this year, he added.

According to the analyst, this increase marks an important, albeit quantitatively insignificant amount,
step toward rebalancing US military assistance to the Philippines, compared to other Asian countries.
In 2004, Manila accounted for 70 percent of FMF for East Asia compared to just 30 percent today.

The two countries have also agreed to pursue further military cooperation, Bower said.

“In addition to a second Hamilton-class cutter due to arrive later this month, talks moved forward on the transfer of a third cutter and a squadron of F-16 fighter jets to the Philippines,” he added.

According to Bower, Manila has become an increasingly important partner for Washington in the last several years, particularly in light of the Obama administration’s renewed interest in Asia and the two countries’ shared interest in the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes and preserving maritime security and freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea.

The Philippines, he noted, has had several run-ins with China over disputed waters in the West Philippine Sea. The most high profile of these was the 2011 threat by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel to ram a Forum Energy survey ship operating off the Philippine coast.

For nearly a month now, Philippine and Chinese vessels are engaged in a tense standoff at the Panatag Shoal, which the Philippines also calls Bajo de Masinloc, based on an old map dating back to the 1700.

Outmatched by China, Manila has looked to Washington and other countries to help pressure Beijing to respect international law in resolving the West Philippine Sea disputes.

Bower said that the Philippines was seeking clarification from the United States on obligations for mutual defense as reaffirmed by both countries at the end of their historic consultation.

“The official statement following the ‘2+2’ reaffirmed the two countries’ ‘shared obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty and our mutual commitment to the peace and security of the region,’” he added.

“What precisely those obligations are and which areas they cover remain purposely ambiguous,” the analyst said.

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