Obama foreign policy speech: Philippine experts doubt US intention to help Asian allies

A Philippine soldier (R) fires his weapon while a US soldier (L) supervises during a live fire exercise at a Philippine army training camp in Fort Magsaysay, in Nueva Ecija province north of Manila on May 10, 2014. Philippine lawmaker Carlos Isa
A Philippine soldier (R) fires his weapon while a US soldier (L) supervises during a live fire exercise at a Philippine army training camp in Fort Magsaysay, in Nueva Ecija province north of Manila on May 10, 2014. Philippine lawmaker Carlos Isagani Zarate said a defence pact Washington signed with Manila during US President Barack Obama's state visit to the Philippines in April provided the US with "a staging area for its expansionist plans in the region at no cost". -- FILE PHOTO: AFP 

MANILA - President Barack Obama's foreign policy speech at the US Military Academy in West Point may have diluted Washington's much-hyped "pivot" to Asia, but it does not come as a surprise as it just spells out what has already been obvious for quite some time, according to political observers in the Philippines.

"(The speech) is just a categorical statement that the United States was never serious about coming to the Philippines' defence in the event of an armed conflict with China," lawmaker Carlos Isagani Zarate, of the Bayan Muna (Nation First) party, told The Straits Times.

Mr Obama had assured US allies in Asia like the Philippines and Japan that it would use "military force", unilaterally if necessary, if their security "is in danger".

He also said, however, that for conflicts that do not pose a direct threat to the US, like the territorial rows now brewing between China and its neighbours, "the threshold for military action must be higher".

Dealing specifically with issues in Asia, Mr Obama expressed his preference for multilateral forums, citing talks on a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea.

Mr Zarate said vague commitments like these expose Washington's true interest in Asia.

He said a defence pact Washington signed with Manila during Mr Obama's state visit to the Philippines in April provided the US with "a staging area for its expansionist plans in the region at no cost".

"The defence pact was never meant to shield the Philippines from Chinese aggression," he said.

During his visit to the Philippines, Mr Obama said the US' commitment to defend the Philippines is "iron-clad", citing the 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defence Treaty.

Mr Zarate said even that treaty does not guarantee US defence of the Philippines in the event that confrontations in the South China Sea escalate into a limited or full-scale invasion of the Philippines by China.

"It will have to go through their constitutional process. It's not iron-clad," he said.

Political analyst Alex Magno, a lecturer at the University of the Philippines, said a pivot has not been in the cards since Mr Obama declared - as he punctuated his "rebalancing" of US power towards the Asia-Pacific in November 2011 - that "the United States of America is all in".

Mr Magno said Mr Obama's seeming lack of enthusiasm towards Asia stems from a concern that a pivot to Asia "may send the wrong signal", especially as the US is embroiled in other theatres of conflict it regards as more important such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and now Ukraine.

"It may seem the US is leaving the European flank open," he said, referring to Ukraine.

Mr Marcel Briana, executive director of the Centre for Regional Studies and Policy Reforms, said Mr Obama's speech at West Point on Wednesday was "an unequivocal message to its allies in Asia that the US will not always be around to push China back".

"That is just something we need to live with for now," he said.

rdancel@sph.com.sg

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