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08/06/2012: Obama Reaffirms US Commitment to MDT; Vows Support for PH Defense Initiatives

8 JUNE 2012

When President Aquino arrives from the United States on Sunday, he will be bringing home with him the assurance from no less than President Obama of Washington’s commitment to the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty and its support to his ongoing efforts to improve the country’s external defense capabilities.

In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs described as an enormous success the President’s three-day official working visit to the United States, which was capped by an almost hour-long meeting with President Obama at the White House.

“President Aquino just ushered in new era in our bilateral relations by successfully laying the foundation for our new strategic partnership with the United States,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. Del Rosario said.

Aside from reiterating Washington’s commitment to its obligations under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, President Obama also assured President Aquino of his support to the efforts to upgrade the country’s defense capabilities, according to Secretary Del Rosario.

A statement issued by the White House said President Obama reaffirmed the US Government’s support for Philippine efforts to build a minimum credible defense posture, as evidenced by its transfer of a second US Coast Guard Cutter to the Philippine Navy, support for the Philippine National Coast Watch System, and the growing number of bilateral exercises and training programs.”

“And on security and military issues, we had discussions about how we can continue to consult closely together, to engage in training together, work on a range of regional issues together -- all of which is consistent with the announced pivot by the United States back to Asia, and reminding everybody that, in fact, the United States considers itself, and is, a Pacific power,” President Obama in remarks to the press after the meeting.

“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,” President Obama added.

According to Secretary Del Rosario both leaders also agreed to build on the success of the joint counterterrorism efforts by looking into how the two countries could further enhance their cooperation in such areas as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security, and maritime domain awareness.

He said President Aquino also briefed President Obama on developments in the West Philippine Sea and received support for his efforts to defuse the tension and seek a diplomatic solution to the impasse at Panatag Shoal.

“Both President Aquino and President Obama underscored the importance of the principles of freedom of navigation, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce. They expressed his 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 White House statement read.

The statement added that President Obama also conveyed his support for the ongoing efforts within ASEAN to reach an agreement with China on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that creates a rules-based framework for managing and regulating the conduct of parties, including preventing and managing disputes.

Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose L. Cuisia Jr., who was present during the White House meeting, said President Obama’s position on the West Philippine Sea followed similar statements made by Secretary Clinton during the lunch she hosted for President Aquino at the State Department also on Friday.

“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,” Secretary Clinton told more than 200 guests that included US diplomats and legislators and prominent Filipino-Americans.

“In this context, we welcome the initial steps to defuse tensions surrounding the Scarborough Reef taken by President Aquino. And we encourage continued diplomatic dialogue and further efforts to lessen tension, to disengage, and to resolve the situation peacefully,” she said.

“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. We also call on ASEAN and China to conclude their efforts to reach consensus on a code of conduct for the South China Sea,” Secretary Clinton said.

Secretary Del Rosario said US support for the National Coast Watch System, which was announced during the luncheon hosted by Secretary Clinton, will come in the form of intelligence exchanges on maritime domain issues and funding for the construction of the National Coast Watch Center as well as equipment and training.

“The establishment of the National Coast Watch Center is vital in securing the territorial integrity, ensuring the maritime security and protecting the maritime resources of an archipelagic country with a 36,000-kilometer coastline like the Philippines,” Secretary Del Rosario said.

“The National Coast Watch Center, which is a concrete realization of President Aquino’s directive, will enable us to know what is happening in our maritime territory on a 24-hour basis,” he added, referring to Executive Order 57 signed by the President in September, which calls for the establishment of a National Coast Watch Center headed by the Philippine Coast Guard to implement and coordinate maritime security operations in the country.

The latest assurances from Washington that it would abide by its commitment under the Mutual Defense Treaty followed the unanimous adoption by the US Senate of a resolution calling for increased defense and security cooperation with the Philippines.

According to Ambassador Cuisia, Senate Resolution 481, sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana), calls for increased cooperation and enhanced bilateral security ties between the two countries, including support for Philippine defense modernization, the rotational presence of US forces and increased humanitarian and disaster relief preparedness activities.

It also urged Washington to continue its efforts to assist Manila in the areas of maritime security, maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and related communications infrastructure to enable enhanced information sharing and overall military professionalism.

The resolution also cited the 30 April 2012 meetings where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reaffirmed to Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin that Washington remains “fully committed to honoring mutual obligations with the Philippines and that the alliance continues to serve as a pillar of the Philippines-US relationship and a source of stability in the region.”

The resolution also underscored the shared interest of the two countries “in maintaining freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce and transit of people across the seas and subscribe to a rules-based approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas through peaceful, collaborative, multilateral and diplomatic processes within the framework of international law.”

“The Senate confirms the alliance’s centrality and enduring value as one of the key pillars of peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and as a key tool in addressing the emerging security environment in the region,” the resolution read.

The resolution, which was co-sponsored by Senators John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts); James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma); Jim Webb (Democrat, Virginia); Kelly Ayotte (Democrat, New Hampshire); Tad Cochran (Republican, Mississippi) and Daniel Inouye (Democrat, Hawaii), also called on Manila and Washington to continue high-level consultations.