PHOTO: ELOISA LOPEZ / POOL / AFP
MANILA — The U.S. gave the Philippines millions of dollars worth of weaponry on Monday and pledged to back it in maritime disputes amid growing suspicion over America’s commitment to Southeast Asia after four years of uneven policies under President Donald Trump.
Trump’s administration vowed a robust presence in what it termed the “Indo-Pacific,” but experts say actions didn’t always match rhetoric, and that the president’s lack of appearances at major summits signalled disinterest in a part of the world with some of the country’s oldest allies.
On his latest trip to the region to represent Trump, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien visited the Philippines after touring Vietnam on his latest trip. The two countries are at the forefront of challenging China’s sweeping claims in the hotly contested South China Sea.
The visit comes as Trump is distracted in the waning days of his presidency, disputing election results as President-elect Joe Biden forges ahead with his transition team, a process that will be watched closely in this part of the world. The New York Times reported that he is picking experienced diplomat Antony Blinken as his choice for Secretary of State, a choice that will be welcome in a region weary of Trump’s “America First” messaging.
In Manila, O’Brien handed over $18 million in weapons systems, including precision-guided munitions and tube-launched optically guided wireless TOW missiles. He said it was a fulfillment of a pledge made by Trump to President Rodrigo Duterte in a phone call in April. While there he also took a potshot at Beijing while reaffirming the U.S. commitment to stand by the Philippines in its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“Those resources belong to the children and grandchildren of the people here. They belong to the Philippine people,” O’Brien said. “They don’t belong to some other country just because they may be big… that’s just wrong.”
O’Brien was received by heads of states during his trip. But in Manila, he did not meet with Duterte, who is in Davao City.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. welcomed him and said the military will use the donated weapons to counter Islamic militants in Mindanao, a southern island that has become a hotbed of Islamic State-allied militant groups.
“We look forward to training on the use of these weapons with the best and undisputed military power in the world. The only one in history selflessly dedicated to the freedom and independence of other countries wherever threatened in the world,” Locsin said.
A former U.S. colony, the Philippines is one of America’s oldest treaty allies in the region. But American influence has waned in recent years with the rise of China, which Duterte warmed to after taking power in 2016. But despite threats to cut back on longstanding deals, Duterte approved the extension of the Visiting Forces Agreement, a feature of the U.S.-Philippines defense pact that allows American troops to stay in the Philippines for exercises or training.