MANILA -- This is a written interview with President Barack Obama conducted by ABS-CBN News. The White House provided the news organization with Obama's answers to some of its questions on Sunday, prior to the US President's visit to the Philippines.
ABS-CBN News: What role does the Philippines play in your administration's concept of a rebalanced US focus on Asia?
President Obama: The United States is renewing our leadership in the Asia Pacific, and the foundation of our commitment to the region is our enduring alliances, including with the Philippines. As a vibrant democracy, the Philippines is a reminder that citizens across this region want to live in freedom and make their own choices about their future. As treaty allies, the Philippines and the United States stand together for the peace and security we seek in the Asia Pacific—a peace that can begin at home, with the Philippines’ historic agreement to end the long insurgency in its south.
As one of the fastest-growing economies in the region, the Philippines is a growing market that offers more opportunity for the trade and investment that creates jobs for people in both our countries. And given the incredible ties between our peoples—including millions of Filipino-Americans in the United States and the hundreds of thousands of Americans living in the Philippines—we’re bound by family and friendship. We felt those bonds after Typhoon Yolanda last year. As Americans, we joined Filipinos in mourning the loss of so many lives and we’ve stood with the Philippines in the search and recovery operations and, now, the effort to rebuild.
In recent years, President Aquino and I have been working to deepen the cooperation between our countries. We very much support President Aquino’s efforts to strengthen governance and combat corruption so that democracy delivers for the Filipino people. Through our Partnership for Growth, which reinforces President Aquino’s economic reform efforts, we’re working together to promote growth that’s inclusive, lifts people out of poverty, encourages investment and expands trade. Our militaries are coordinating more closely to promote regional stability and maritime security.
I see my visit as an opportunity to begin a new chapter in the relationship between the Philippines and the United States. I believe there’s even more we can be doing together across a whole range of areas, even as we respect the independence and sovereignty that Filipinos cherish. On security, we can deepen our security cooperation in the Asia Pacific and work to ensure that international law is respected and disputes are solved peacefully. On governance, we can promote the rule of law and open government that empowers the citizens of this region. On trade, we can continue lowering barriers to trade and insist that all countries play by the same rules. I believe my visit to the Philippines and my work with President Aquino will be a chance to make progress in each of these areas.
ABS-CBN News: Our countries are hammering out a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation that includes increased rotational U.S. presence. There are concerns that this may lead to a reopening of U.S. bases in the Philippines. Does the U.S. plan to revisit the idea of opening bases, to address China's expansionist moves?
President Obama: Our efforts to deepen our defense cooperation reflect the long history of our two countries standing shoulder-to-shoulder for our shared security. Americans and Filipinos fought heroically in defense of the Philippines during the Second World War and then for its liberation. Our forces served together in Korea and Vietnam, and American forces continue to advise and assist Filipino forces in their fight against terrorist groups. In times of natural disaster, such as last year’s typhoon, our men and women in uniform work together to rescue victims and deliver food, medicine and shelter. Put simply, our alliance and our military cooperation makes both our nations more secure.
Still, I know that given the long history between our nations, some Filipinos have questions about what any new defense agreement might mean. I want to be absolutely clear—the new defense cooperation agreement that we are negotiating is not about trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases. Rather, any new agreement would give American service members greater access to Filipino facilities, airfields and ports, which would remain under the control of the Philippines. U.S. forces would not be based in the Philippines. Instead, they would rotate through for joint training and exercises—as some U.S. forces already do.
Greater cooperation between American and Filipino forces would enhance our ability to train, exercise, and operate with each other and respond even faster to a range of challenges, including humanitarian crises and disasters like Typhoon Yolanda. It would also help the Philippines continue to build its defense capabilities, and it would help us promote security cooperation across the region.
ABS-CBN News: With its rebalance to Asia, how does the United States intend to balance its ties with China and its commitment to guarantee freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and honoring its treaty obligations with allies?
President Obama: The Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines is our oldest security agreement in Asia. We’ve pledged ourselves to our common defense for more than six decades. Our treaty obligations are iron-clad. The United States stands by its allies, in good times and in bad. In fact, one of the main purposes of my visit will be to reaffirm our treaty commitments to the Philippines and to make it clear that just as we’ve relied on each other in the past, we can count on each other today.
Southeast Asia is home to some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, but also competing claims by governments in the region. In all of my interactions with the Chinese, I stress that the United States has an abiding national interest in a rules-based regional order in which there is respect for important principles such as freedom of navigation and overflight, international law, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. And as part of my commitment to develop a constructive relationship with China, I’ve been clear and consistent in stressing that the United States and China need to support efforts among claimants to peacefully manage and resolve maritime and territorial issue through dialogue, not intimidation, including in the South China Sea.
ABS-CBN News: On the rebalance to Asia, one of the main initiatives is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement, which might exclude the Philippines due to its hesitation to remove foreign ownership restrictions. The Philippines could be left out in terms of trade and investment. The TPP would miss one of the region's fastest growing economies. How hard will the US convince the Philippines to join the TPP?
President Obama: The Trans-Pacific Partnership is ultimately open to any regional economy that meets the agreement’s high standards. We’ve been consulting with the Philippines on this, and we believe that the Philippines would see substantial benefits from the TPP. Of course, it’s up to each country to make the important decisions required of the TPP. This includes reducing barriers to trade and investment, opening markets and ensuring that companies have a level playing field on which to compete. If trade is going to be free and fair, then every country has to play by the same rules.
In recent years, President Aquino’s efforts to improve governance, reform regulations and make the Philippines more competitive have helped unlock greater prosperity. Today, the Philippines is one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. I look forward to hearing more from President Aquino about his reform efforts and his plans for the future. My message to the Philippines is the same one I deliver elsewhere—for any country willing to meet its high standards, TPP will deliver important benefits, including more trade and more growth.
ABS-CBN News: Like you, President Aquino promised change. While economic growth figures are high, inclusive growth has yet to be achieved. What are your thoughts on these and what advice would you give Aquino?
President Obama: The economic performance of the Philippines has been impressive. It’s a credit to President Aquino’s leadership and to the determination and sacrifices of the Filipino people. The challenge of ensuring that economic growth is inclusive is not unique to the Philippines. Around the world, we’ve seen that rapid growth doesn’t necessarily translate to broad-based growth. Even in good economic times, many of our fellow citizens can still struggle just to get by, or languish in poverty. In the United States, we’ve seen that gains in our growing economy haven’t always been felt by our middle class. As a result, we’ve seen growing income inequality, and not just in the United States, but around the world. I think one of our greatest challenges is making sure that our economies work for everyone who is willing to work themselves.
Every country is unique, and no two countries will follow the same path. But whether it’s the Philippines, the United States or any other country, there are basic things we can be doing so that more people are sharing in our prosperity. Of course, we ought to be making it easier, not harder, for entrepreneurs to start new businesses and for companies to grow, create new jobs and hire more workers. We ought to be making sure our laws and regulations attract trade and investment, not scare it away. More broadly, we need to recognize that our most valuable economics asset –the key to our prosperity—is our people. We need to make sure we’re investing in education, and in the skills and training that help people pull themselves up from poverty and share in the progress of our countries.