Philippines more than a photo opp

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Philippines more than a photo opp

MANILA - More than a photo opportunity of world leaders in local garb, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum offers U.S. President Barack Obama the chance to signal U.S. commitment to Asian allies’ defense and development.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declared Tuesday night that he would fly Air Force One over disputed islands in the South China Sea, his intent might well have been to win over American voters in his bid to replace what he called Obama’s and his then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “feckless” and “weak” foreign policy.

Relegated to the “undercard” in the most recent Republican presidential debate, the governor’s tough talk certainly won him some attention in the United States and Asia, including in the Philippines. That nation will host Obama and some 20 other economic leaders at the annual APEC forum from Wednesday to Thursday. The Philippines is also in a bitter dispute with China over vast areas of what it calls the West Philippines Sea.

Christie may never have the chance to direct the U.S. presidential plane if his present poll ratings are any guide. “I’ll fly Air Force One over those islands,” Christie had declared. “They’ll know we mean business.” The “they,” of course, being the Chinese - but he could well have been referring to anyone looking for a leader perceived as being able to stand up to China today.

Indeed, while trip details are likely now set and the work of advance teams done, Obama could well benefit from a few added, strategic stops in the Philippines beyond APEC. His journey could be used to signal strength and determination to Asian allies and to supporters of the just concluded Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal that his signature “pivot to Asia” is very much alive.

The powerful symbolism of a leader’s visit and itinerary - whom one talks to, where one visits - cannot be underestimated, particularly in Asia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent state visits to the United States and United Kingdom are examples. A glittering White House state dinner helped underscore China’s importance to his fellow Chinese back home. Xi also spent time with America’s business titans, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. The clear message being communicated? America’s most famous business leaders cannot ignore China’s economic stature and market size. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was reported to have asked Xi to name the young billionaire’s unborn child - a request that it was also reported that Xi snubbed. The word “kowtow” comes to mind.

And in London, Xi spent a night at Buckingham Palace and was guest of honor at a state dinner hosted by Queen Elizabeth. The tables had clearly turned since the mid-1800s, when China was forced to cede Hong Kong island to the British and later saw an Anglo-French force sack Beijing’s old Summer Palace amidst the humiliating so-called Opium Wars.

So, beyond the talkfest and side meetings that are at the heart of every annual APEC economic leaders summit, what might Obama do to underscore through his travels that the Asia pivot, or “rebalance,” continues?

First and foremost, a visit by Obama to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) - “Asia’s World Bank” - is very much warranted. Such a move would also be very much welcomed by two key U.S. allies: Japan - the ADB president has always been Japanese - and the ADB’s host country, the Philippines. Established amidst the postwar reconstruction efforts of the early 1960s with strong U.S. support, the Manila-based ADB is, for now, the largest Asia-based international financial institution focused on economic growth and poverty reduction in the region.

Why for now? China has won the support of almost every U.S. ally in Europe and Asia - except Japan - to establish a major new multilateral financial organization, known as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The AIIB - “China’s World Bank - is expected to be up and running by year’s end with its first projects coming in second quarter of 2016. With capital of $100 billion - much of it provided by China - the institution at its creation will already be nearly two-thirds the size of the ADB.

A U.S. presidential visit to the ADB would help underscore that indeed the United States, in Christie’s words, “means business” when it comes to standing by old friends and the institutions that it had helped create and foster in the postwar world.

So, too, would the United States and the U.S. rebalance to Asia benefit from the powerful symbolism of a presidential visit to two one-time U.S. military bases not far from Manila. That is the former U.S. Naval Base in Subic Bay and the former Clark U.S. Air Force Base. Once the largest U.S. bases of their kind in Asia, they were both ultimately closed.

The two bases were converted to economic, trade and other uses following the 1991 eruption of nearby Mount Pinatubo and the rejection by the Philippines Senate of a treaty that would have extended the lease of the American bases in the Philippines. The nation’s post-Ferdinand Marcos era Constitution bars permanent U.S. bases. Amidst China’s rise, however, many Filipinos may well welcome stronger U.S.-Filipino defense ties even as the Philippines has stuck to diplomacy and taken its dispute with China to an international tribunal. A Philippines Supreme Court ruling is expected soon on the constitutionality of an “enhanced defense cooperation agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines.

A visit by Obama to Subic, Clark or both could be used to underscore America’s long-term commitment to the Philippines and other Asian allies amidst China’s maritime expansion and its building of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Now a “free port,” Subic would also provide the venue for Obama to further emphasize the value of freedom of navigation to trade and economic growth.

A visit to the former Clark Air Base would provide the U.S. president the chance to visit - just days after U.S. Veterans Day - one of the few cemeteries operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) around the world for America’s war dead. In January 2013, Obama had signed into law the Dignified Burial and other Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act, directing ABMC to operate and maintain the cemetery, which had been damaged in the Mount Pinatubo eruptions and fallen into disrepair.

In April 2014 in Manila, my successor as U.S. Ambassador to the ADB, Robert M. Orr, presented Obama with a book commemorating the work of Obama’s late mother, Ann Dunham, with the ADB. Dunham had worked as an ADB consultant on projects involving Pakistan and Indonesia.

How fitting and powerful it would be if Obama on this latest trip to the Philippines were to signal through stops at the ADB, and at Clark and Subic Bay, that America’s commitment to Asia - whether its development or defense - extends through generations. And in doing so, he need not direct Air Force One to fly anywhere it was not already scheduled to go. Asia will remind him though that even the best symbolism must be followed by substance.

The author, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

by Curtis S. Chin
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