- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2019

MANILA — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met here Thursday with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to boost a key Southeast Asian treaty ally at a moment of increased concern over expanding Chinese military might and economic maneuvering in the region.

Mr. Pompeo, stopping in the Philippine capital on the way back from the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam, was greeted warmly by Mr. Duterte before the two held private talks on a range of subjects, including “ways to improve cooperation on regional security and counterterrorism,” the State Department said.

Before the meeting, Mr. Pompeo told reporters traveling with him that Trump administration officials “are worried that the Chinese are using their power in ways that will deny freedom of navigation to every country in Asia, the Philippines included.”

The secretary of state went further on Friday morning, suggesting during a joint press conference with Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin, that the U.S. military forces are at the ready to respond if China becomes too aggressive.

“China’s island building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the United States,” Mr. Pompeo said. “Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty.”

“Our commitments under the treaty are clear, and our obligations are real,” he added.

But China’s regional foreign policy is targeting the Philippines, a longtime U.S. ally, in ways beyond the military realm. Most notably, at least two major Chinese companies have recently made inquiries to take over the main shipyard at Subic Bay that once housed one of the U.S. Navy’s most strategic bases.

American operations at Subic and at nearby Clark Air Base represented the largest collective U.S. military installation outside the borders of the United States prior to their closure more than two decades ago.

A tax- and duty-free zone established there by Manila now hosts South Korean and Japanese companies, but the Nikkei Asian Review recently reported that Chinese companies have expressed interest in taking over the Subic site after a major South Korean tenant defaulted on some $400 million in bank loans.

“A successful bid by a Chinese company to take over the shipyard at Subic Bay, in a property that used to host U.S. forces, would symbolize the country’s increasing presence in the South China Sea,” the Nikkei Asian Review said.

Both Washington and Beijing have tried to cultivate Mr. Duterte, the mercurial and outspoken former provincial mayor elected president in June 2016. The competition has been sharpened by the lure of Chinese investment and doubts about the long-term U.S. commitment to the region.

Patrick Cronin, the top Asia-Pacific security analysts at the Hudson Institute in Washington, told The Washington Times recently that the U.S.-Philippine alliance remains strong, but that Mr. Duterte is seeking “to balance outside powers [and attract badly needed investment from China and others.”

Mr. Pompeo told reporters that countering Chinese expansionism is a core tenet of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific and national security strategies.

During his press conference Friday, the secretary of state argued that American companies are more trustworthy than Chinese companies seeking to invest in a range of sectors across the region, including in energy.

“Where America goes, we seek partnership, not domination,” Mr. Pompeo said, adding that “energy is certainly one area where the United States is eager to build new cooperation in the region.”

“The demand for energy in Asia is going to skyrocket in the coming years and American companies are poised to invest billions into the region for the best partnerships to deliver reliable, secure and portable supplies of energy,” he said. “Similarly, American companies are the best partners in the areas of infrastructure, development and the digital commons because they operate with the highest standards and adhere to the rule of law.”

“The same cannot be said of Chinese state-run or state-backed enterprises,” the secretary of state added.

Ahead of Mr. Pompeo’s visit on Thursday and Friday, Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Romualdez said that a proposed move to re-examine the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between Washington and Manila was expected to be discussed during the visit.

At Friday’s press conference, however, Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin suggested that he was confident in the current status and strength of the treaty.

The Philippines is the largest recipient of U.S. military financing aid in the region, totaling more than $335 million over the past five years.

While the Duterte government has been sharply criticized for its human rights record and a crackdown on drug dealers that has left thousands dead without due process, U.S. officials say Manila continues to supply critical aid in counterterrorism efforts against Islamic State factions and other terrorist groups in the region.

A State Department fact sheet said Mr. Pompeo’s stopover was meant to “reaffirm U.S. support for this critical treaty ally at a time when the Philippines faces increasingly diverse threats to its security.”

Mr. Pompeo told reporters that his visit to the Philippines was driven both by logistics and a desire to show good will to Mr. Duterte and his administration.

“The reason for the timing is it’s almost on the way back [from Vietnam],” the secretary of state told reporters traveling with him. “It made for good timing when President [Duterte] was there and available to spend some time with me.”

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