Obama Expresses Support for Philippines in China Rift

Although tensions seem to have eased in the South China Sea, there is still, however, a stalemate in the region between China and the Philippines. While the US and the Philippines have discussed the dispute before, Washington has now shown support for Manila. Al Jazeera reports:

Washington and Manila have called for freedom of navigation in the tense South China Sea as the White House offered a robust show of support for Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

Addressing reporters next to Aquino in the Oval Office, Obama said the two leaders spoke about “trying to make sure that we have a strong set of international norms and rules governing maritime disputes in the region.”

In a joint statement released afterward, the two leaders “underscored the importance of the principles of ensuring freedom of navigation, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce.”

China claims virtually all of the South China Sea up to Southeast Asian nations’ shores and tensions have soared in recent years with both the Philippines and Vietnam.

As Washington expressed support for Manila in maritime disputes, President Barack Obama’s statement did not directly mention the conflict with China. From the New York Times:

And he got it, if obliquely, on Friday. Mr. Obama told reporters after the meeting with Mr. Aquino that the United States and the Philippines would “consult closely together” as part of “the announced pivot by the United States back to Asia,” which he said should serve as a reminder that “in fact, the United States considers itself, and is, a Pacific power.”

Mr. Obama did not mention China or the standoff at Scarborough Shoal, but he said that he and Mr. Aquino discussed the need for “a strong set of international norms and rules governing maritime disputes in the region.”

Still, his message was aimed at China, which has asserted sweeping claims over the South China Sea, touching off disputes with several other countries that border the sea. The Obama administration has countered China’s muscle-flexing by shoring up alliances with old partners like the Philippines and Australia and cultivating ties with new ones like Myanmar.

According to Reuters, the US is neutral on disputes in the South China Sea:

The United States, colonial ruler of the Philippines from 1898-1946 and a treaty ally since 1951, is formally neutral on South China Sea territorial disputes.

But Washington’s encouragement of multilateral discussions pits it against China, which has insisted on bilateral talks with its weaker neighbors to resolve conflicts.

Manila is in a showdown with China over the Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe-shaped reef near the Philippines in waters both countries claim, and has sought to upgrade its defense posture with ships, aircraft and surveillance equipment.

Earlier on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was not taking sides in the Manila-Beijing standoff but had a clear interest in ensuring free navigation, unimpeded commerce and stability in the South China Sea.

Read more on the disputes in the South China Sea, via CDT.