MANILA – United States President Donald Trump on Tuesday stressed the value of the Philippines as an ally in Southeast Asia, saying its location is “strategic” from a military standpoint.
Trump just wrapped a 3-day trip to the Philippines to attend a regional summit that gathered leaders from the ten member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their dialogue partners, including the United States, Japan, Russia and China.
In a speech before departing for the US, Trump spoke of the Philippines’ “strategic location” in the Pacific.
“And now, we have a very, very strong relationship with the Philippines, which is really important, less so for trade in this case, but for military purposes, it is a strategic location, the most strategic location,” Trump said.
“And if you look at it, it’s called the most prime piece of real estate from the military standpoint,” said the American President.
The Philippines once hosted US bases. Through the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, the country allowed greater rotational presence of American troops in Philippine military bases.
Trump's visit was seen to reinvigorate ties between the Philippines and the US, two long-standing Pacific allies who saw challenges when President Rodrigo Duterte took his post and pursued an independent foreign policy.
The US has been helping the Philippines deal with various concerns, ranging from frequent disasters to terrorism in Mindanao.
Duterte has, meanwhile, been determined to lessen Manila’s dependence on Washington, seeking closer ties with US rivals China and Russia.
The President showed an acerbic stance towards the US early in his term as his drug war drew criticism from Trump's predecessor Barack Obama. He has since softened his stance.
And for Trump, Philippine-US ties are "better than ever."
“It’s very important that we get along with the Philippines and we really do. We have a good very good relationship. I would actually say, probably, better than ever before,” Trump said.
US, PH REAFFIRM MUTUAL DEFENSE TREATY
In a joint statement released following the two leaders’ bilateral meeting Monday, the two countries reaffirmed their commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty, which calls on the US to come to the Philippines’ aid in case of external attack.
The two sides also stressed their commitment to EDCA, which aims to bolster the alliance between the US and the Philippines.
At the height of his anti-US rhetoric, Duterte had threatened to scrap the EDCA, a deal struck by the previous US and Philippine administrations in a bid to counter China’s military buildup in the disputed South China Sea.
PH, US HIT ‘MILITARIZATION’ IN S. CHINA SEA
China’s island-building in the Spratlys archipelago and deployment of military equipment right into the heart of the maritime route have raised concerns among countries in the region, including Japan and Australia, whose economies count on unimpeded access to the vital sea lane.
In the same joint statement, the Philippines and US reiterated their commitment to “uphold their principles including the freedom of navigation and overflight, and the exercise of self-restraint.”
“They stressed the importance of peacefully resolving disputes in the South China Sea, in accordance with international law, as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention,” the statement read.
“They further underscored the need to continue pursuing confidence-building measures to increase mutual trust and confidence, and to refrain from actions that would escalate tensions, including militarization.”
US statements on the sea dispute is deemed interference by China, which was also angered by Washington’s freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waters.
The US has accused China of militarizing the region, an allegation Beijing has denied.
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has adopted a friendlier stance towards China, downplaying the maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing in pursuit of improved economic ties.
In defending his move to seek better ties with China, Duterte had previously said Manila could not afford to go to war with Beijing, which invests heavily in its military.
Aside from the Philippines, ASEAN member-states Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam also have overlapping claims to the sea with China and Taiwan.