What does it mean to head a country of 95 million people, when more than 10 million of your compatriots live and work abroad?

For President Benigno S. Aquino III of the Philippines, one thing it means is carrying an atlas wherever he goes--so that if Filipinos need to be evacuated from one hot spot or another (say, Libya), he can immediately study possible escape routes..

Aquino pulled out the atlas for a different purpose during a visit to the Post this week. He wanted to illustrate the unreasonableness of Chinese claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, claims so expansive that they have set off alarms in Japan, Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia. At stake are control over underwater oil and gas fields but also the principle of free navigation through some of the most heavily traveled channels of the world’s oceans.

Aquino pointed to an area claimed by China that is less than 100 miles from his coast but more than 500 miles from China’s nearest island. But the president, who is refreshingly straightforward and unpretentious, was pragmatic about what the Philippines can do about it.

“They have one of the most credible military forces, we have a barely adequate military force,” he said. “Even if we were to challenge them to a boxing match, there is no way we would prevail.”

His solution has been to negotiate (“so long as we’re still talking, it’s better than not talking”), to deepen trade and investment ties, to make common purpose with other Southeast Asian nations, especially Vietnam--and to stress the importance of his country’s friendship with the United States.

“America comes in, and you are really seen as a balancing force,” Aquino said.

That’s a sentiment that Asian leaders may sometimes hesitate to express, for fear of offending China. But it is universally shared.