The nuances of the working visit of President Benigno S. Aquino III to Washington DC showed the intents on both sides more clearly than in the public statements on both sides. Some of them can be gleaned from the statements themselves while others are in the hosting itself.
Both President Aquino and President Obama affirmed the historic ties. President Aquino said that “Ours is a shared history, shared values, and that’s why America is just one of two that we have strategic partnerships with. Today’s meeting has really even deepened and strengthened a very long relationship we have, especially as we face the challenges that are before both our countries in the current situation.”
President Obama, on his part, remarked that “[H]ow important the U.S.-Philippine relationship was, the historic ties, the 60 years of a mutual defense treaty, the extraordinary links between Filipino-Americans that have brought our two countries so closely together. And we pledged to work on a whole host of issues that would continue to strengthen and deepen the relationship for the 21st century.”
However, President Obama kicked off his remarks with economic issues, citing the Millennium Challenge Grant and the Open Government Partnership as their contributions to developing trade and commerce as well as to the anti-corruption campaign in the Philippines. President Aquino, on the other hand, touched only the strategic and historic ties.
In the official government statement later, Secretary Ramon Carandang would later stressed the “U.S. Government’s strong support for Philippine efforts to build a minimum credible defense posture…” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only committed that “the United States will support the construction, outfitting, and training of a new National Coast Watch Center in the Philippines.”
Both are more in tune with regards to regional issues. According to Secretary Clinton, “[W]e do … have a clear interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.”
The visit did not answer the old question of the Mutual Defense Treaty, that is: Will the United States automatically come to our aid if we are attacked by any foreign power? It did not also provide an answer to the newer question, that is: Will the US help us if our vessels and aircraft are attacked in disputed territories of the West Philippine Sea?
The message is clear: The United States will still follow its own national interests in the Southeast Asia region and will only act with or in support of the Philippines if these are consistent with its own interests. Granted, there is a wide latitude of common interests at the moment, particularly in the areas of “the maintenance of peace and stability, freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.”
A working visit is one rank below a formal state visit. It can be construed as one befitting a strategic ally–for the moment. It is definitely not in the same league as the state visits of real strategic allies such as Britain, Japan, Australia or even Israel. The Philippines still does not qualify.