Typhoon fears prompt Kerry to cancel visit to Philippines


From left, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong join hands as they pose for a group photo at the East Asia Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei on Oct. 10, 2013. (Vincent Thian/AP)
October 10, 2013

President Obama canceled a visit to the Philippines because of the political storm at home; now Secretary of State John F. Kerry is scotching the trip he was supposed to make in Obama’s stead because of a real storm at sea.

Tropical Storm Santi will prevent the planned stop in Manila on Friday, Kerry announced Thursday, as he held a hastily scheduled meeting with Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario on the sidelines of Southeast Asian political and security talks.

Santi is expected to hit the island nation as a typhoon on Friday.

“Because of the judgment of our pilots, and the airlines, that with the approaching typhoon, we are going to postpone the trip that I was going to make to the Philippines,” Kerry said.

He apologized and promised to reschedule quickly, “within a month or so.”

Kerry also spoke Thursday to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to inform him of the cancellation.

Del Rosario was gracious but disappointed.

“We of course were eager to welcome Secretary Kerry,” del Rosario said. “We wanted to use this opportunity to further advance our alliance and our strategic partnership.”

Obama’s visit to the longtime U.S. ally had been much anticipated in Manila, where the Aquino government has taken the region’s most forceful posture in territorial disputes with China. The Obama administration has encouraged the Philippines, while China has sought to exact a political and economic cost on Manila.

“Every nation has a voice that should be heard,” Kerry said Thursday at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that included China’s No. 2 official. “Each of us also has an obligation to meet the founding principles of this organization: to foster mutual respect for independence and sovereignty; to promote peaceful resolution of disputes and adherence to international law.”

The United States is pushing sometimes reluctant Southeast Asian states to insist on a “code of conduct” with China that would help regulate maritime and other disputes.

“Freedom of navigation and overflight is a linchpin of security in the Pacific. It is a right we all share,” Kerry said. “The right to safe and unimpeded commerce, freedom of navigation and respect for international law must be maintained. The rights of all nations, large and small, must be respected.”

The cancellation of Obama’s Asian visit, which was to have included the ASEAN meeting here, has raised alarm in the Philippines and elsewhere that the United States would lose a banner opportunity to counter assertive Chinese territorial claims.

Kerry is filling in, and his aides have insisted that he is making the same arguments and keeping the same schedule as Obama would have done, and that leaders from across Asia have received Kerry without reservation.

But for the Philippines especially, a personal visit from either Obama or Kerry would have come at a particularly welcome moment.

Chinese land claims and maritime expansion in the South China Sea have resulted in numerous territorial disputes over islands and fishing areas, and they have set up a conflict with the United States over its long practice of maintaining a heavy naval presence in Pacific international waters.

China lays claim to much of the South China Sea, which has oil and gas reserves. Separate territorial disputes involve Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The United States is officially neutral, but one of the aims of Obama’s strategic “pivot” to Asia is to unite and strengthen Southeast Asian states that have traditionally been loath to challenge China. The United States has offered economic and political support, and in some cases the implicit promise of military backing.

Nowhere is that network of support more at issue than in the Philippines.

China and the Philippines have been involved in naval standoffs, and China has sought to occupy Scarborough Shoal, a reef about 120 miles off the Philippine coast. The United States is backing the Philippines in a legal tussle over the reef.

China refuses to recognize the legal challenge. In several days of Asian diplomatic meetings here and in Bali, China has made a point of freezing out Philippine representatives.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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