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Obama Bolsters Philippines, With One Eye On China


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The Philippines sent the U.S. military packing more than 20 years ago. U.S. forces withdrew from Clark Air Base and from the naval base at Subic Bay. Well, today, just before President Obama touched down in Manila, the two countries signed an agreement to allow more American troops to rotate through the archipelago. Why the change of heart? Well, in a word, China. NPR's Frank Langfitt is following this story from Shanghai. And, Frank, what's behind this new agreement?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, most in region see this as the U.S. trying to back up the Philippines. The Philippines and China have been kind of wrangling over shoals and parts of the South China Sea. And China has mostly been winning. The shoals aren't worth a whole lot but they're part of larger battle in the South China Sea, which is really important because of shipping lanes and potentially huge oil and gas reserves. Recently, China's been more assertive and most people in the region see this as part of a power play by China to gain more control over the South China Sea and ultimately, over time, to try to push back the U.S. Navy and develop its own sphere of influence.

SIEGEL: So, why is President Obama in the Philippines and why is he there now?

LANGFITT: Well, the whole trip has been to bolster alliances out here, including South Korea and Japan, who have been pretty anxious about a rising China. Today's agreement, it's important to point out, doesn't reopen those bases that you mentioned, but it'll give American military personnel greater access. And I think probably symbolically, maybe even more importantly, show support for the Philippines and signal the U.S. is still very committed to the region. President Obama said at a news conference today that the U.S. wants to see all these disputes over territory in the region handled carefully.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We don't even take a specific position on the disputes between nations, but as a matter of international law and international norms, we don't think that coercion and intimidation is the way to manage these disputes.

SIEGEL: Now, Frank, the president said coercion and intimidation. He didn't say Chinese coercion and intimidation but is that what he meant?

LANGFITT: Absolutely. He didn't have to. Everybody who follows this in this part of the region absolutely knew which country he was talking about. And what he was referring to, I think specifically, is China and the Philippines kind of battling over these shoals. A couple of years ago, China basically took effectively control over Scarborough Shoal, was able to block Filipino fishermen. In January, the Philippines says that Chinese actually used water cannon on the fishermen to keep them out of a very valuable fishing area. And, you know, all of this is kind of significant because China's been able to take control of these fishing grounds without actually firing a shot.

SIEGEL: Frank, throughout his trip to Asia, the president has talked about a renewed commitment to the region. In Washington, the term of art is a pivot to Asia. Do people in the region think the U.S. is economically strong enough to remain the dominant power there?

LANGFITT: Well, there's a lot of skepticism. I think that they look at a post-financial crisis in the U.S., a lot of allies in this region are concerned that the U.S. just don't have the money to continue to invest heavily in the military in this part of the world. There's also concern that the United States has other big foreign policy issues that it has to deal with, including Syria and Ukraine. There's a famous think-tank in London called Chatham House, and they put out a report recently, and they put it this way: they said in the next 15 years, they thought Asians may have to get used to a situation that Europeans are now kind of coming to terms with, that the U.S. is going to still be a very important regional actor but it may not be the first or principle place that people go to for ensuring security.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.