By Ernie Bower
The outline of an American strategy for Asia has been developing for the last two years. At its core is strengthening relationships with like minded partners throughout Asia, especially our treaty allies. These alliances are vitally important stanchions underpinning developing regional security and trade architecture.
On July 25 in Manila, Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino addressed his countrymen in his second State of the Nation Address. The leader of this United States treaty ally called the Filipinos “My Bosses,” and used characteristically blunt and simple language to convey two primary messages: we need to improve governance and we will stand up to protect and defend our sovereignty. (For more detailed analysis of his speech see our Critical Questions primer). Aquino appears to be a leader who believes in things that Americans also hold dear: democracy, good governance, freedom and fighting poverty.
While enjoying the economic boost from good trade and investment relations with China, the Philippines has drawn the line at challenges to its sovereignty. During his speech, the President displayed two photos of a Hamilton class Coast Guard cutter being sent by the United States to the Philippines to help enhance its maritime security capabilities. The day after the speech, US PACOM Commander Admiral Robert Willard met President Aquino and reconfirmed the United States commitment to support the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
It is now time for the White House to connect the strategic dots and invite President Aquino to visit the United States. Clearly, President Obama is more than busy coping with matters that impact the health and future of the U.S. economy, but a working visit can be executed with precision. A visit would send a timely and effective message ahead of President Obama’s hosting APEC and participation in his first East Asia Summit meeting in November. The message is that America supports it friends and allies not only tactically, but politically. This was done very well with the working visit of New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key last week.
Timing is also important. Since no invitation from Washington, D.C. has been received yet, Aquino has agreed to visit Beijing in September, even though he felt compelled, in his state of the nation speech, to point out to the Chinese “what is ours, is ours,” and he made clear that his country would defend its sovereign interests within its exclusive economic zone.
A Washington visit for Mr. Aquino is being considered and should be prioritized. If the United States wants to truly be a Pacific power, diplomatic and strategic thrusts must be supported by the White House.
Ernest Z. Bower is Senior Advisor and Director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.