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MANILA, Philippines — President Barack Obama said a 10-year agreement signed Monday to give the U.S military greater access to Philippine bases will help promote peace and stability in the region and that he hopes China's dominant power will allow its neighbors to prosper on their own terms.
Signed as Obama arrived in Manila, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement will give American forces temporary access to selected military camps and allow them to preposition fighter jets and ships. Although the deal is being perceived as a U.S. effort to counter Chinese aggression in the region, Obama said his message to Beijing is that America wants to partner with China in upholding international law.
"Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of international disputes," Obama said at a news conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III at the Malacanang Palace.
Obama's overnight visit to the Philippines is the last stop on a weeklong Asia tour that also included Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. At each stop along his tour, Obama reaffirmed the U.S. treaty commitments to defend its Asian allies, including in their territorial disputes with China. He said in Manila that the U.S. takes no specific position on those disputes, but believes China should resolve disputes with its neighbors the same way the U.S. does — through dialogue.
"We don't go around sending ships and threatening folks," Obama said.
With its anemic military, the Philippines has struggled to bolster its territorial defense amid China's increasingly assertive behavior in the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea, which Obama flew over on his way here, according to the Air Force One cockpit. Chinese paramilitary ships took effective control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground off the northwestern Philippines, in 2012. Last year, Chinese coast guard ships surrounded another contested offshore South China Sea territory, the Second Thomas Shoal.
Aquino, standing next to Obama in front of a lush backdrop of tropical plants, said the new agreement "takes our security cooperation to a higher level of engagement, reaffirms our countries' commitment to mutual defense and security, and promotes regional peace and stability."
Still, the increased U.S. military role drew consternation from some Filipino activists, who say the agreement reverses democratic gains achieved when huge American military bases were shut down in the early 1990s, ending a nearly century-long military presence in the former U.S. colony.
Some 800 of those activists burned mock U.S. flags and chanted "no-bama, no bases, no war" on the road leading to the gates of the palace where Obama met with Aquino. Others burned an effigy of Obama riding a chariot pulled by Aquino, who was depicted as a dog.
Seeking to allay concerns, Obama said at the outset of his remarks that the U.S. wasn't trying to reclaim bases or open new ones. Instead, he said, the agreement will improve maritime security and hasten response to regional natural disasters.
Yet even as he moved to increase America's military presence in Asia, Obama pushed back against suggestions that an undercurrent of weakness in his foreign policy has enabled the type of festering crises that have become distractions even during Obama's trip to Asia. Reviewing his decision-making on Russia, Syria and other global hot-spots, Obama said he's strengthened the U.S. position in the world even if his tactics "may not always be sexy."
"For some reason, many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven't really learned the lesson of the last decade," Obama said of his more hawkish critics. "Why? I don't know."
Honoring Obama at a state dinner later at the palace, Aquino presented Obama with the "Order of Sikatuna," a national award recognizing exceptional service to the Philippines and its global relations. Obama was given the rank of "Raja," a distinction bestowed only on heads of state, and said he was deeply honored.
"I accept it in the spirit in which it has been bestowed, with a commitment to continuing to depend the bonds between our two great nations," Obama said as some 300 guests watched from long tables adorned with baskets of tomatoes, red peppers, figs and other local produce.
Under the new military agreement, Filipino facilities would remain under Philippine control and U.S. forces would rotate in and out for joint training, as some already do, and not be based in the country, he said. The Philippine Constitution bars permanent U.S. military bases, although hundreds of American military personnel have been deployed in the southern Philippines since 2002 to provide counterterrorism training to Filipino soldiers fighting Muslim militants.
Many details, including the size and duration of the U.S. military presence, remain to be worked out with the Philippine government. The White House has declined to say which places are being considered under the agreement, but that the long-shuttered U.S. facility at Subic Bay could be one of the locations.
U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg and Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin signed the agreement at the main military camp in the capital, Manila, shortly before Obama's arrival in the country on Monday. Obama planned to pay his respects Tuesday at the U.S. military cemetery at Fort Bonifacio and address U.S. and Philippine troops before returning to Washington.
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Teresa Cerojano in Manila contributed to this report.