MANILA -- Raising the issue of maritime row in the South China Sea would be a significant move for the Trump administration to reaffirm its commitment to allies and partners in the Southeast Asian region during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet next week, said an expert on Wednesday.
Previous US administration has committed to seek stronger treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea (ROK), and the Philippines. It also moved to enhance defense posture in the region and prioritized Asia for its most advanced military capabilities.
"Assuming that (President Donald) Trump will at least act consistently with longstanding United States policy for the region, it's important for Trump to show, to demonstrate some kind of reassurance that the US remains actively interested in what's going on in the region," said Dr. Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.
Speaking on the sidelines of the ADRI ASEAN Leadership Forum in Makati City, Batongbacal said this will display Washington's support especially to littoral countries in the area in trying to resolve the sea row peacefully and in maintaining stability in the region.
The expert was asked how significant the discussion of the South China Sea issue would be for President Rodrigo Duterte and Trump who are set to hold a bilateral meeting at the backdrop of the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Meetings.
"It is more significant (for Trump) than for Duterte because he (President Duterte) has been clearly trying to manage it on his own by relating to China than with the United States,” Batongbacal said.
Earlier, Amy Searight, senior adviser and director of Center for Strategic and International Studies-Southeast Asia Program, doubted that an in-depth discussion between Trump and Duterte on the matter will surface.
“I don’t think he (President Duterte) wants to have any South China Sea discussion with President Trump at all. And so I also don’t know whether President Trump is going to really forcefully raise that issue with the Philippines or not,” she said last Nov. 1.
Washington asserts its rights to perform freedom of navigation operations where international law allows.
Last August, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that in pushing for a binding sea pact in the South China Sea, three elements must be met. Among others is the non-interference of outside forces in negotiations.
'Still robust as ever'
Meanwhile, in an interview at the same event, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana affirmed that the US-Philippine partnership is "still robust as ever."
The official was asked whether the government projects future alliance of the two states as stronger because of necessity or weaker out of neglect.
"Nobody is neglecting the relationship with the US, it's still as robust as ever. We still have exercise with them every year here," he told reporters. "If we say stronger out of necessity, I'll say because it is the need of the region."
"I think a lot of ASEAN countries here in the region still believe that the presence the US is still beneficial to everybody," he added.
If Washington needs to step up efforts, Lorenzana said it would be up for them. "They have to determine their role here, we cannot impose on them anything." (JLR/PNA)