MANILA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sat down for talks in Manila on Monday, the last stop in his four-nation Asia tour, hours after the United States and Philippine governments signed a new military pact granting a larger presence for U.S. forces in the country.
The agreement, which will have an initial 10-year term, is touted as the highlight of Obama’s first visit to the Philippines, the United States’ oldest ally in the region.
It sets the framework for a beefed-up rotation of U.S. troops, ships and warplanes through the Philippines, part of a rebalancing of U.S. resources towards fast-growing Asia and the Pacific.
The deal comes at a time when the Southeast Asian nation is struggling to boost its military capability in the face of China’s growing maritime presence in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
Those growing regional tensions were highlighted by a commentary from China’s state news agency Xinhua on Monday criticizing the pact.
“Given that the Philippines is at a bitter territorial row with China, the move is particularly disturbing as it may embolden Manila in dealing with Beijing,” the commentary said.
“A more assertive or even reckless Manila would stoke regional tensions and in turn upset Obama’s policy of rebalancing.”
Obama shook hands with Philippine officials at the Manila airport tarmac and waved to the crowd before boarding his Marine One chopper that took him to the presidential palace for bilateral talks with Philippine President Benigno Aquino. He was greeted with a 21-gun salute upon his arrival at the palace.
Philip Goldberg, U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, said the new security agreement will form part of the United States’ existing military treaty with the Philippines, adding it would not introduce a permanent U.S. military presence in the country via new military bases.
“It will...serve to update our security alliance to meet the increasingly complex challenges of the 21st century, whether it is terrorism, transnational crimes or natural disasters like typhoon Haiyan,” Goldberg said in a speech at the signing ceremony before Obama’s arrival at the defense headquarters in Manila.
He added the deal, called the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, would allow for more joint training activities for U.S. and Philippine forces.
The two nations will hold joint military exercises next week in areas mostly north of the capital.
Officials said the new security accord did not specify the number of U.S. troops and equipment to be deployed in the country, with those details to be discussed separately by the two governments.
“They can do construction and upgrade of infrastructure, they can store or preposition defense equipment, supplies and material, as well as hard equipment and supplies,” said Lourdes Yparaguirre, Philippine ambassador to Austria and a member of the negotiating panel which worked on the deal for eight months.
“China was never discussed in the negotiations,” she told reporters on the sidelines of the signing ceremony. “We don’t aim to contain or confront anyone. I hope that our neighbors in the region would also view this agreement as a positive contribution to peace, stability, security and prosperity in the region.”
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, an important shipping route that is believed to be rich in energy resources, a claim that overlaps with that of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Manila has sought international arbitration over China’s “nine-dash-line” claims to the waters.
While some groups believe the new military agreement with the Washington raises Manila’s military capabilities, others think it will create more problems for the country.
“Relations with China...will deteriorate further in the context of maritime disputes. China is averse to any Philippine government initiative to involve the U.S. in its security agenda,” said Rommel Banlaoi, analyst at the Center for Intelligence and National Security in Manila.
“We are strengthening our relationship with the U.S. at the expense of our relationship with China,” he said.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Mark Felsenthal; Writing by Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Alex Richardson