by Sunshine Lichauco de Leon
U.S. President Barack Obama assured Filipinos on Monday that a security agreement signed earlier in the day did not mean that America was trying to reestablish military bases in the Philippines.
Speaking at a news conference in the Philippines' capital Manila alongside President Benigno Aquino, Obama said that the U.S. is not trying to reclaim old or build new bases.
"At the invitation of the Philippines, American service members will rotate through Filipino facilities," which will allow them to work together to prepare for a range of challenges including natural disasters, he said.
The Philippines is a former American colony, and the presence of U.S. troops in the country has long been a sensitive issue. In 1991, the country's Senate voted to shutter major U.S. bases, but in 1999 it ratified a pact allowing temporary visits by its forces. Since then, hundreds of American forces have held counterterrorism exercises with local troops battling militants in the country's south. Disagreements, however, remain - thıs year's peace negotiations between the country's largest rebel group and the government were held up over local access to designated areas within the U.S. camps.
Obama is on a two-day visit to the country - the first by an American President in 11 years. Hours before his plane touched down Monday, the U.S. signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation pact, which allows for a bigger military presence.
Speaking at the conference, Obama said the deal was not intended to contain China, with whom the Philippines is embroiled in a bitter territorial row over a swathe of the South China Sea which includes territories several Southeast Asia nations call their own.
"Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of international disputes," Obama said.
He backed Manila's attempts to seek United Nations arbitration over the dispute.
“We will work together to build the Philippines defense capabilities and work with other nations to promote regional stability such as in the South China Sea.”
The two presidents - speaking at a joint press conference at the Philippines’ Malacanang Palace - talked of the strength of the Philippine- American alliance and friendship as one strongly rooted in the past generation but very much working” together in the future.
Obama said he was proud to be in the country on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Leyte, where Americans and Filipinos fought together during World War II, and underlined that the Philippines is the U.S. oldest security alliance in Asia.’
“All these years later we continue to stand shoulder to shoulder to uphold peace and security in this region and around the world.”
Obama highlighted a recently signed peace agreement between the Philippines’ government and the country's largest rebel group, as giving the country a chance to create lasting peace with greater prosperity for that region.
In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, devastated portions of Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines. Obama talked of the cooperation between the two countries in helping to rebuild.
"This is what friends do for each other,” he said. “We will continue to stand with you as you recover and rebuild. Our commitment will not waiver.”
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