Kerry explains ‘broader agenda’ for visiting the Philippines

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — U.S. State Secretary John Kerry said Wednesday Washington wants to renew its close and wide-ranging ties with the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte just weeks after the new administration took office.

Speaking before reporters following a meeting with Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., Kerry said his meeting with the country’s leaders will not be limited to the South China Sea dispute, the main security concern in the region.

“I speak for President Obama and the entire administration in saying that we look forward to working with President Duterte and with all of our friends in the Philippines for the benefit of both of our countries,” Kerry said.


Maritime dispute

Kerry said Washington is not taking sides in the territorial claims in the South China Sea, but wants all parties to respect international law, engage in negotiations and avoid provocations that could heighten tension in the region.

His visit is the first by a U.S. State Secretary under the Duterte administration and follows the July 12 Arbitral Tribunal ruling that junked China’s nine-dash line claims to the South China Sea. Beijing refused to participate in the arbitral proceedings and rejected the Tribunal’s decision.

“We have made clear that the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal convened under the UN law of the sea convention is legally binding, and we expect that the parties would comply with their obligations on the law,” Kerry said.

He said countries with overlapping claims in the South China Sea should engage in negotiations rather than confrontation. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam also claim parts of the disputed waters.

“We urge all claimants to exercise restraint and to work to reduce tension,” he said.

Kerry praised the “responsible and measured” response of the Philippines after its historic win against China.


Human rights

In addition to the South China Sea dispute, Kerry told reporters his talks with Yasay included discussions on law enforcement, regional security, combating transnational crimes like human trafficking and protecting human rights.

“I made very clear that civil and human rights need to be protected even as we work to keep our societies safe,” Kerry said.

He did not elaborate but his trip to the Philippines comes as the country is witnessing a sharp rise in the number of alleged drug dealers and users killed in police operations and by suspected vigilantes after Duterte ordered an all-out war against illegal drugs.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) is investigating possible extra-judicial killings and the Senate is set to open a separate probe. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch also has raised concerns about the killings.


Kerry also said the U.S. will continue supporting the Philippines’ counter-terrorism efforts.

“This nation has been managing these threats by groups like the Abu Sayyaf for some period of time and our nations work very closely together in order to counter those threats,” Kerry said.

The U.S. State Department blacklisted the ASG as a terrorist organization in 1997 for engaging in kidnappings for ransom, bombings, beheadings, assassinations, and extortion that have victimized American citizens.

The Duterte administration earlier promised a “day of reckoning” for the Abu Sayyaf and said it is determined to dismantle the group after it beheaded two Canadians kidnapped from Samal Island last September 2015.

Also read: Who are the Abu Sayyaf?


Kerry said the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), whose constitutionality was upheld by the Supreme Court on Tuesday, will help the two countries coordinate efforts to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

EDCA allows increased U.S. military presence in the Philippines and gives American forces permission to build installations inside Philippine military bases.

“Moving forward, the EDCA agreement will also expand opportunities for our militaries to train together and that will help modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines in order to help them to be able to increase their effectiveness in responding to 21st century threats,” Kerry said.

By prepositioning humanitarian relief supplies in U.S. installations inside Philippine bases, Kerry said the EDCA will allow the U.S. to give rapid assistance to the country during emergencies or natural disasters.

U.S. troops were among the first to come to the aid of the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).