KUALA LUMPUR - US President Barack Obama heads to the Philippines Monday for the most complex leg of his Asian tour, balancing act of reassuring allies wary of a rising China while avoiding antagonizing Beijing.
Obama will land in Manila hours after the allies sign a new defence agreement allowing rotations of US troops and ships through the Philippines, part of a US rebalancing of military power towards rising Asia.
Anti-China sentiments run high in the Philippines, which is locked in a showdown with the Asian giant over disputed atolls in the South China Sea, part of a proliferation of maritime hotspots that has stoked Asian tensions.
During an Asian tour that has taken him to Japan, South Korea and Malaysia, Obama has repeatedly warned that small nations should not be bullied by larger ones, a clear reference to China's increasingly sharp geopolitical elbows.
"Disputes need to be resolved peacefully, without intimidation or coercion, and… all nations must abide by international rules and international norms," Obama said in Malaysia Sunday.
That is also a message that has resonance in America's East-West showdown with Russia over Ukraine-a row to which Obama has had to return time and again during his Asian journey.
Opening his trip, Obama made clear that US defence treaties with Japan did cover disputed islands long administered by Tokyo in the East China Sea, which are known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China.
The Philippines has its own territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea)-notably over the Second Thomas Shoal, an outpost in the remote Spratly Islands.
US officials have not been so specific over perceptions of their obligations toward Manila on territorial disputes-but it is clear they do not believe them covered by the American Mutual Defence Treaty with the Philippines.
"With respect to some of the difficult territorial issues that are being worked through, it is hard to speculate on those because they involve hypothetical situations in the South China Sea," said deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes.
"The US Japan agreement has very specific coverage of territory under Japanese administration.
"Some of the disputes in the South China Sea raise more hypothetical circumstances."