Obama lists South China Sea dispute on agenda as summit begins
While Obama affirmed a commitment to the Philippines’ security and to freedom of navigation in regional waters, a senior official in Beijing said China was the real victim of the waterway dispute because other countries had illegally occupied islands there.
The verbal jousting could cast a shadow over the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit of about 20 heads of state and government, including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Manila has said it will not bring up the maritime dispute to avoid embarrassing Xi, but could not prevent others from doing so.
Xi also arrived in Manila yesterday, but did not make any public comments.
Shortly after Air Force One touched down in Manila, Obama boarded the Gregorio del Pilar, a Philippines navy frigate that was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter until 2011 but yesterday flew the flags of the two allies.
“We have a treaty obligation, an iron-clad commitment to the defense of our ally the Philippines,” he said, flanked by about two dozen U.S. and Philippines uniformed navy personnel. “My visit here underscored our shared commitment to the security of the waters of this region and to freedom of navigation.”
He did not mention China but the symbolism of his visit was hard to miss: the ageing vessel is now a mainstay of the Philippine Navy, operating around the Spratly islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by both Manila and Beijing.
Obama also announced two more U.S. ships would be transferred to the Philippines as part of a two-year $250 million package to enhance regional maritime security – a research vessel to help navigate territorial waters and a coast guard cutter for “long endurance patrols”.