While in New York for the formal launch of the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative aimed at bolstering transparency and eliminating corruption, President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines delivered a simple message to President Obama: Come visit the Philippines.
Indeed, throughout this trip, President Aquino has extolled the U.S. and praised its treaty alliance with the Philippines. During a speech at the Asia Society on Monday, Aquino expressed support for a stronger U.S. role in Southeast Asia, stating that “the Philippines welcomes America’s active re-engagement across Asia by strengthening its traditional alliances, actively making its presence felt in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), [and] participating in the agenda-setting of the East Asia Summit.”
Aquino went on to describe current relations with China, which has harassed Philippine vessels in the South China Sea multiple times this year, as “multi-layered,” then stressed the importance of the U.S. defense umbrella to the region. “The United States is our only defense treaty ally. Our top priority is maritime security…[and] this is a focal point of our security cooperation with the United States of America.”
Perhaps the time is finally ripe for such a trip. After all, the two leaders do have a lot to talk about. President Obama should accept President Aquino’s invitation for several reasons:
Respect. As America’s longest standing treaty ally in the Pacific, the Philippines deserves the respect that a U.S. presidential visit conveys. Apparently President Obama’s schedule did not permit him time for a formal one-on-one with Aquino in New York or D.C., so accepting Aquino’s invitation would demonstrate a tremendous display of friendship.
Both countries’ interests. A visit serves both American and Philippine geostrategic interests. As Aquino himself stated, “from a geostrategic standpoint, the Philippines is at the vortex of the most dynamic and fastest growing region in the world.” The U.S. has consistently affirmed its national interest in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and ensuring stability throughout Asia, and a visit to the Philippines would demonstrate America’s commitment in this area.
The Heritage Foundation has written extensively on how the U.S. can better support the Philippines in protecting its territorial sovereignty against Chinese assertion over the South China Sea—through measures such as increasing maritime cooperation, expanding sales of excess defense articles, and ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. President Obama’s visit could serve as the catalyst for an even greater level of cooperation on this and many other issues, most notably combating terrorism and drug trafficking.
Trade. With President Obama’s stated goal of doubling U.S. exports, the Philippines could prove a critical market in the future. President Obama stated in 2010 that “American exports to ASEAN countries are growing twice as fast as they are to other regions, so Southeast Asia will be important to reaching my goal of doubling American exports.” If that’s the case, Obama should use a trip to the Philippines to discuss means of boosting bilateral trade and investment and, among other things, getting behind the SAVE Act.
Securing America’s position. Aquino is sending a clear and powerful message that the Philippines wants the U.S. to play a greater role in Southeast Asia. Such support from within ASEAN is exactly what the U.S. needs to ensure that America’s strategic, moral, and economic interests in Southeast Asia—interests it shares with the Philippines and several other ASEAN countries—are secured. In visiting the Philippines, Obama can capitalize on the exceptional goodwill of the Filipino people and better demonstrate U.S. commitment to the region as a whole, further proving to an oftentimes fickle Southeast Asian audience that, as Secretary Hillary Clinton and Secretaries of State before her have said, America is in the Asia Pacific to stay.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the U.S.–Philippines alliance, and for the alliance to survive another 60 years, the U.S. must not falter in its commitment to the Philippines. Seemingly simple things like a presidential visit will go a long way in reminding all of Asia that the U.S. is a Pacific nation and will always be a Pacific nation. For these reasons, President Obama should respond with a resounding yes.