WASHINGTON—President Benigno Aquino arrived here on Wednesday night (Thursday morning in Manila) for a visit that will highlight the Philippines’ growing importance in American strategic thinking as the United States “pivots” to Asia and both countries worry about China’s intentions.
US President Barack Obama will receive Mr. Aquino at the Oval Office on Friday afternoon (Saturday morning in Manila) for discussions expected to center on China’s increasing aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
A day before Mr. Aquino’s arrival in the US capital, the US Senate passed a resolution calling for increased American defense and security cooperation with the Philippines, including support for the modernization of the Philippine military.
A US official said Washington saw Mr. Aquino as a leader who was “trying to do the right thing” to tackle the corruption, cronyism and red tape that have held back the economy of his nation of 93 million people.
Mr. Aquino’s plane—a chartered Philippine Airlines Airbus A340—landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland at 8:19 p.m. Eastern time (8:19 a.m. Thursday in Manila) from London’s Heathrow Airport.
Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Cuisia Jr., embassy staff members and a throng of well-wishers from the Filipino-American community in Washington welcomed Mr. Aquino.
Instead of boarding the presidential limousine after the reception of the honor guard, Mr. Aquino walked straight to meet his supporters at the edge of the tarmac, sending US Secret Service agents and official vehicles scrambling after him.
US Air Force personnel said it was “uncommon” for heads of state to approach well-wishers, with most boarding their vehicles at the foot of the ramp.
Mr. Aquino’s gesture sent his welcomers cheering. “We love you, P-Noy,” some shouted. “Mabuhay si P-Noy,” others cheered. (P-Noy is the president’s moniker.)
First White House meet
The President and Obama have met four times over the last two years, but never in the White House. This is the first time that the US leader is officially playing host to Mr. Aquino.
The meeting at the Oval Office will lay the groundwork for the future of the strategic partnership between the Philippines and the United States, Ambassador Cuisia said.
He said the two leaders would discuss global, regional and domestic issues, including those affecting bilateral relations.
“They will also be covering more specifically military and security cooperation, economic cooperation, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, people-to-people exchanges or people-to-people ties,” Cuisia said in an interview.
“But they will also, I’m sure, be talking about the West Philippine Sea as part of the maritime security discussions,” he said.
Mr. Aquino will also meet senior US lawmakers for “discussions on our bilateral economic and defense cooperation, the shift in the focus of the United States toward the Asia-Pacific and ways to revitalize our alliance,” Cuisia said in a statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in Manila.
On Tuesday, the US Senate passed Resolution No. 481 calling for increased defense and security cooperation with the Philippines. The measure was sponsored by Senator Richard Lugar in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States.
Senators John Kerry, James Inhofe, Jim Webb, Kelly Ayotte, Tad Cochran and Daniel Inouye also sponsored the resolution. They called on Manila and Washington to continue high-level consultations.
The DFA statement quoted Cuisia as saying that the Senate resolution “calls for increased cooperation and enhanced bilateral security ties between the two countries, including support for Philippine defense modernization, the rotational presence of US forces and increased humanitarian and disaster relief preparedness.”
“It also urged Washington to continue its efforts to assist Manila in the areas of maritime security, maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and related communications infrastructure to enable enhanced information sharing and overall military professionalism,” Cuisia said.
Importance of alliance
“This is a very positive development that further underscores the importance the United States places on its alliance with the Philippines,” he said. “The Filipino people greatly appreciate this gesture by our friends in the United States.”
Washington’s “rebalancing” of forces to the Asia-Pacific region, a post-Cold War strategy two decades in the making, has accelerated under the Obama administration in response to China’s rapid military modernization and growing assertiveness in the region.
60% of naval fleet
The Obama policy has focused on Southeast Asia and crafting flexible arrangements with other allies in Asia, Australia and the Philippines, and ship visits to Singapore and Vietnam.
No new US bases are envisioned, although 2,500 US troops will rotate through and train in Darwin, Australia. Any new arrangements with the Philippines would be smaller than the Australian program, US officials said.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a security forum in Singapore last weekend that the United States would reposition its naval fleet so 60 percent of its battleships would be in the Asia-Pacific by the end of the decade, up from about 50 percent now.
The plan drew a pledge from China’s People’s Liberation Army to increase its vigilance.
In upgrading its military capability to protect its interest in disputed areas of the West Philippine Sea, Manila has been looking to Washington for ships, aircraft and surveillance equipment to build a credible defense posture.
After high-level bilateral security and diplomatic talks in late April, the Obama administration pledged to increase its annual foreign military sales to the Philippines to $30 million, about three times the level of the 2011 program.
“We’ve been working with the Philippines on military modernization for 12 or 13 years, very intensively,” said Walter Lohman, a Southeast Asia expert at Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
“The only thing that has changed is the urgency of this and the seriousness the Philippines has shown under the Aquino administration,” he said.
Manila’s new urgency stems from a standoff with China at the Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe-shaped reef near the Philippines in waters both countries claim. Since April 8, two Philippine civilian vessels have been facing off with nearly 100 Chinese vessels at the shoal.
Discussions between Mr. Aquino and Obama are expected to touch on the standoff.
On Thursday morning (Friday night in Manila), Mr. Aquino will meet US businessmen and prospective investors at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Among those who will be present are top officials of power firm Sithe Global, which operates two 300-megawatt coal-fired power plants in Mariveles, Bataan; Denham Capital, a private equity firm specializing in energy and commodity investments; and electricity generation firm GN Power.
Mr. Aquino will also meet with officials of Underwriters Laboratories, the company that uses the “UL” trademark, specializing in the testing of electronic products, in the hope of enticing them to set up operations in the Philippines.
At 11 a.m., he will be interviewed by senior editors of Washington Post, after which he will proceed to the Quantico Marine Corps base in Virginia, which also houses the training facilities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Cuisia said at least one Philippine law enforcer was currently undergoing training at the FBI Academy, and that Mr. Aquino hoped to convince the US government to increase the number of slots allotted to Filipino police trainees.
Mr. Aquino will meet US senators led by Inouye, the deputy Senate president and chair of the powerful appropriations committee.
“These senators are, of course, interested in the broad relationship between the Philippines and the United States,” Cuisia said.
“But more specifically, they also have expressed interest in what’s going on in the West Philippine Sea. They would like to listen to our President and find out what are the current developments in the West Philippine Sea.”
On Thursday night, Mr. Aquino will grace the dinner launch of the new lobby group US-Philippines Society.