MANILA, Philippines (AP) — President Barack Obama stood in front of a hulking Philippine Navy frigate Tuesday and vowed to bolster security in the seas around the island nation -- opening a six-day diplomatic tour in Asia that was likely to be divided between the region's long-simmering disputes and more immediate concerns about Islamic extremism roiling Europe and the Middle East.
During a visit to the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a onetime U.S.-owned warship, Obama announced the U.S. would transfer two additional U.S. ships to the Philippine Navy — a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and a research vessel.
"We have a treaty obligation, an ironclad commitment to the defense of our ally, the Philippines. You can count on the United States," Obama said, with U.S. and Philippine troops looking on. "My visit here underscores our shared commitment to the security of the waters of this region and to the freedom of navigation."
The announcement in front of the dramatic backdrop was a brief attempt to focus the world's attention on Obama's efforts to strengthen alliances in Southeast Asia, a key element of his seven-year campaign to increase U.S. influence in the region.
But the attacks in Paris and talk of reprisals against the Islamic State group threatened to cloud Obama's good-news tour to the Philippines and Malaysia this week. While Obama was ready to talk up his freshly-signed trade deal and military cooperation in Asia, the rest of the world was looking for leadership on the Islamic State's relentless reign of violence.
It was hardly the first time the Middle East has kept Obama from making the strategic Pacific-oriented pivot that his administration once imagined would be central to his foreign policy legacy. Instead of ending under Obama's watch, old conflicts in the Middle East have morphed into new, equally intense ones. Instead of gradually moving to center stage, Obama's agenda in Asia has had to compete for time and attention.
As Obama arrived for a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group, the 21-member group readied a statement condemning the Paris attacks -- a rare deviation from the group's chief mission.
The White House was determined this week to show it would keep a steady focus despite the tragedy that consumed European allies. Obama left Washington as scheduled just hours after the night of violence in Paris left 129 people dead and hundreds more injured. He has not changed his plans for the nine-day trip that began Sunday at the Group of 20 summit in Antalya, Turkey.
At back-to-back summits in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, Obama was expected to point to recent evidence of long-sought progress in Asia.
Recent elections in Myanmar, where activist Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party won overwhelming victory, were a boost for Obama's foreign policy team, which has been deeply involved in guiding the shift away from military control.
Obama visit to the warship Tuesday was staged to call attention to a defense cooperation agreement cemented last year that gives the U.S. new access to some Philippine military bases.
The compact is part of a broader effort to strengthen U.S. presence — and counter China — in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The U.S. this year will spend $119 million building up Southeast Asian navies, and Obama will ask for another $140 million in assistance next year, the White House said.
The most notable accomplishment on Obama's list is the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive free trade agreement at the heart of the administration's Asia policy.
Obama will meet with leaders of the other 11 APEC member countries in Manila on Wednesday to mark the milestone — although the celebration will be somewhat muted. The U.S. and other countries must still overcome considerable political opposition to win final ratification of the trade agreement.
While Obama can point to recent steps forward in Asia, he has little to show on the other side of the equation.
As he looks as his final year in office, Obama has begun to acknowledge that the conflicts he once cast as leftovers he inherited will still be there for the next president. Obama no longer plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the time he leaves office. The rise of the Islamic State has pushed the U.S. gradually deeper into the war zones in Iraq and in Syria, where Obama has deployed a small force of ground troops for the first time.
Meanwhile, the White House says it sees no prospects for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians in the near future.