MANILA, Philippines – President Barack Obama said a 10-year agreement signed Monday to give the U.S military greater access to Philippine bases will help promote regional security, improve armed forces training and shorten response times to humanitarian crises, including natural disasters.
The deal was signed as Obama arrived in the Philippines, ending a weeklong, four-nation Asia tour on something of a high note. The Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement will give American forces temporary access to selected military camps and allow them to preposition fighter jets and ships.
Concerns about the U.S role military role here led to recent clashes outside the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Manila between police and more than 100 left-wing activists who protested Obama’s visit and the new security arrangement. Activists say the agreement reverses democratic gains achieved when huge U.S. military bases were shut down in the early 1990s, ending nearly a century of American military presence in the Philippines, a sensitive issue in this former U.S. colony.
Obama sought to allay those concerns, saying in an interview that the deal is not about U.S. dominance over the Philippines.
“Greater co-operation between American and Filipino forces would enhance our ability to train, exercise and operate with each other and respond even faster to a range of challenges, including humanitarian crises and disasters like Typhoon Yolanda,” Obama told ABS-CBN News in a written interview with the Philippine news outlet. The White House released the interview before Obama arrived in the Southeast Asian island nation to highlight the pact.
“It would also help the Philippines continue to build its defence capabilities, and it would help us promote security co-operation across the region,” he said.
Filipino facilities would remain under Philippine control and U.S. forces would rotate in and out for joint training, as some already do, and not be based in the country, he said. The Philippine Constitution bars permanent U.S. military bases.
Many details, including the size and duration of the U.S. military presence, remain to be worked out with the Philippine government.
U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg and Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin signed the agreement at the main military camp in the capital, Manila, shortly before Obama’s arrival in the country.
Economic and security co-operation were among the issues on the agenda for Obama’s private talks with President Benigno Aquino on Monday, the first day of the U.S. president’s overnight visit. Obama was to be the honoured guest at a state dinner at Malacanang Palace later Monday. On Tuesday, he planned to pay his respects at the U.S. military cemetery at Fort Bonitacio and address hundreds of troops stationed there before Air Force One brings him back to Washington.
The Philippines was the final leg of Obama’s Asia tour, a trip aimed at reaffirming U.S. defence commitments and shoring up relations with allies in the region. He arrived from Malaysia, following earlier stops in Japan and South Korea, and immediately rode his helicopter to the palace for a cannon salute greeting as a military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
At each stop along his tour, Obama reaffirmed the U.S. treaty commitments to defend its Asian allies, including in their territorial disputes with China.
With its anemic military, the Philippines has struggled to bolster its territorial defence amid China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the disputed South China Sea, which Obama flew over on his way here, according to the Air Force One cockpit. Manila’s effort has dovetailed with Washington’s intention to shift its focus away from the Middle East, after years of heavy military engagement there, to the economically booming Asian region, partly as a counterweight to China’s growing clout.
In the interview, Obama reiterated his view that maritime and territorial conflicts should be resolved peacefully, instead of through force.
Chinese paramilitary ships took effective control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground off the northwestern Philippines, in 2012. Last year, Chinese coast guard ships surrounded another contested offshore South China Sea territory, the Second Thomas Shoal.
While in the Philippines, human rights groups say Obama should press the government to fulfil pledges to improve its record. They say Obama should use future U.S. military co-operation as an incentive for the government to investigate and prosecute abuses.
Associates Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.