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To Obama, Philippines No Longer a Key U.S. Ally

Inquirer.net, Column, Amando Doronila Posted: Feb 25, 2009

MANILA, Phils.--When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarked on her first visit to Asia last week, she signaled Washingtons deep commitment to Asia and the Pacific alliance system.

Speaking at the Asia Society in New York, Clinton said: The U.S. is committed to maintaining our historic security alliances in Asia and holding on those relationships to counter the complex global threats we face.

On first examination, it appears she was referring to the Philippines security alliance with the United States. If we read it as such, we would be extremely disappointed and would be overstating our importance as an alliance partner.

The new U.S. secretary of state visited Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and China, but Filipinos were quick to note that her itinerary excluded the Philippines, which, together with Japan and South Korea, have security alliances with the United States.

Indonesia, which has no security alliance with the United States, was the only Southeast Asian country that Clinton visited.

Foreign Policy Overhaul

Clintons itinerary indicated the priority areas in the Asia-Pacific of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama as it overhauls U.S. foreign policy worldwide in the post 9/11.

The trip failed to allay anxieties in the region that the new US administration was more focused on the Middle East and Europe. The anxieties were heightened by the visit of Obama to Canada, his first overseas trip since his inauguration on Jan. 20.

In Canada, Obama played down a controversial Buy America clause in his huge economic stimulus plan, which has raised fears of a U.S. protectionist trade policy and of a backlash in Canada and Europe.

As Clinton visited Asia, signals flared in the Philippines to remind her that its historic and strategic relations with the United States were being badly frayed.

These tensions have been exacerbated by Obamas repeated snubs of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyos attempts to seek a meeting with the U.S. leader or at least receive a return telephone call from him.

Calls To Abrogate VFA

Whether by coincidence or government-inspired, calls have been initiated in the Philippine Congress to abrogate the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

The VFA defines the rules under which US forces are stationed in the country for joint exercises with Filipino soldiers in the battle against outlawed groups associated with the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah in Mindanao.

Washington has poured millions of dollars in military assistance and civic projects into the Philippines.

The calls for the VFAs revocation were triggered by the continued detention at the US Embassy of US Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, who was convicted of raping a young Filipino woman at the Subic Freeport in 2005 when he was on shore leave.

The Supreme Court issued an order two weeks ago ordering Smiths transfer to a Philippine detention facility while he was awaiting the resolution of his appeal.

A bipartisan resolution calling on Ms Arroyo to revisit and terminate the VFA has been introduced in the Senate.

One-sided Feature

Legislators have denounced the continued detention of Smith at the U.S. Embassy as a one-sided feature of the VFA.

Whether this new tension has caught the attention of Clinton, the Philippines appears to be positioning itself for a realignment of its security alliance with the United States.

Galling to Filipinos is the fact that Washington is using Clintons trip to Indonesia as its opening wedge to rehabilitate the U.S. image, which has been battered by widespread disapproval of former US President George W. Bushs war policy on Iraq and terrorists linked to Al-Qaida.

Speaking in Tokyo before flying to Jakarta, Clinton said her message for Indonesia was that the Obama administration would be making a concerted effort to restore the US image in the Muslim world and would endeavor to enlist the help of Muslims around the world against the extremists.

This is one of the central security challenges we faceas to how to better communicate in a way that gets through the demagoguery and is heard by people who can make judgments about what we stand for and who we truly are, she said.

Charm Offensive

Clintons diplomatic charm offensive capitalized on Obamas popularity in the worlds most populous Muslim nation.

Obama has promised to visit Indonesia, where many Indonesians remember him for having attended a primary school in Jakarta as a boy.

While in Jakarta, Clinton touched base with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has its secretariat in Jakarta. She met with ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, a Thai. The United States is hoping for a stronger engagement with the 10-member group.

Clinton, as U.S. secretary of state, has committed Washington to signing the Southeast Asian Nations Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

She also has committed herself to attending the ASEAN ministerial summit meeting in Thailand later in the year.

By contrast, Clintons predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, had what is described as an appalling record of snubbing ASEAN meetings. Because of Clintons visit, observers believe there is a serious effort by Washington to reengage Southeast Asia.

In this re-engagement, the United States has apparently upgraded the role of Indonesia as a point man in the effort to open bridges with the Islamic world.

As for the Philippines, it remains sidelined and a pariah to Obama.

Our prospects are that Obama will continue to ignore our current leadership, no matter how hard Ms Arroyo knocks at the door of the White House. She is not welcome there.

The traditional political and security ties we had with the United Statesthat have served as the framework of our special relations since 1946have been dissolved by the global recession and the new alliances being hammered out by the United States under a new international balance of power.

The Philippines must seek new diplomatic leverages to find its place in this emerging power balance.

Obama has no place for us in this scheme. We should count him out as an ally.

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