United States President Barack Obama came, spoke and essentially reiterated the previous US commitments to the Philippines. In return, it gained wider latitude for its forces in this part of the world, particularly in its access to additional Philippine bases and their longer stay in more numbers.
To be sure, the Philippines got the reassurance it wants—that the US will support the modernization of the Philippine armed forces, and that it stands for the peaceful settlement of its territorial dispute with China, including the bringing of the Philippines of its case to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
President Obama also called on China to observe international norms and settle peacefully its territorial dispute with the Philippines.
Additionally, both President Obama and Philippine President Aquino noted enhanced cooperation on economic relations, disaster response, veteran affairs, immigration issues, and cultural exchanges. However, the meat of the matter is the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Under the agreement, the Philippines gave additional access to several naval and air bases, including the former US bases in Subic Bay and Clark, the new Oyster Bay base in Palawan and several others in northern Luzon and in Mindanao.
Permanent US facilities will be built inside these bases for US use in the next 10 years, subject to extension. These will not be subject to command and supervision by Filipino base commanders, although these may be subjected to their inspection.
President Obama stopped short of guaranteeing US defense of Filipino territory and forces if under attacked in contested territories, although he drew the line at ensuring free aerial and naval movements. US does not recognize both Chinese and Philippine claims to waters it considers as international waters, including much of South China Sea and parts of Sulu Sea.
It is also on record that, ironically, the US is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), upon which the Philippines anchor its claim to the West Philippine Sea. It however by and large supports this and other international customary laws in its practice, without formally committing itself to it.
In the same manner, China wants the US and the rest of the international community to recognize its “nine-dash line” territorial delineation through realpolitik and not by abiding with UNCLOS. This logic led it to reject the path of international arbitration. What it got instead was US firm, realpolitik-based, rejection of its claims.
Thus, President Obama’s message was clear. It is not prepared yet to countenance Chinese redrawing of territorial boundaries. At the same time, he indirectly admonished the Philippines to ratchet downwards its rhetoric on territorial dispute.
The US pivot to Asia wants to produce a rebalancing of interests in Asia, under US leadership. The question remains the same: will China play? President Obama’s visit did not produce a clear answer but rather beg the question.