Philippines, United States Explore Military Cooperation

The governments of the Philippines and the United States are in talks about expanding the American military presence in the island nation. The renewed commitment is part of a comprehensive effort on the part of the Obama Administration to firmly establish America as a Pacific power.

Among the options to bolster America’s alliance with the Philippines are deploying more troops to the islands on a rotational basis and operating United States Navy ships from Philippine ports. Some six hundred Special Forces already operate in the Philippines in assistance of local counterinsurgency efforts.

A future agreement would follow the basing of US Marines in northern Australia and the stationing of warships in the port of Singapore. The United States have also reached out to Thailand and Vietnam to discuss military cooperation. It is all part of an effort to back up President Barack Obama’s words with action. He insisted last November that, “The United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has earlier declared stability in Southeast Asia to be of “national interest” to the United States, a claim that drew a fierce rebuke from the Chinese who argued that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”

It’s because of China’s emergence as an economic superpower and regional hegemon that other countries in East Asia welcome America’s security presence to provide balance.

Especially in the South China Sea region, revisionist Chinese border claims have antagonized its neighbors and the United States alike. Both recognize the importance of safeguarding free shipping though this strategically positioned body of water. Officials in the Philippines acknowledged that their priority is to strengthen maritime ties with the Americans to dissuade Chinese saber rattling to their west.

American attempts at mediation have so far failed to significantly change Chinese behavior and may be unlikely to. The country is facing major demographic challenges as well as resource and water scarcities well into the twenty-first century, compelling it to ensure a favorable balance of power in its vicinity and a foothold in Africa and Central Asia where there are natural riches to be secured.

This could pose a threat to the sovereignty and security of China’s neighbors if Beijing is unwilling to share the role of security provider in East Asia with the United States.

The Americans currently have several tens of thousands of troops stationed across East Asia, in Guam, Japan and South Korea.

This article also appeared in The Seoul Times, January 28, 2012.

The Eagle is Back in Asia

In the gloomy days of December 1941, when Pearl Harbor had just been attacked by Japan and Nazi-Germany had conquered virtually all of Central and Western Europe, there was a American general in the Philippines bidding goodbye to his friends. “I shall return,” he promised them.

Three years later, Douglas MacArthur did return. He reconquered the Philippines and went on to help the United States win the war in the Pacific in 1945.

More than sixty years later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made a similar statement in Foreign Policy magazine where she writes about “America’s Pacific Century.” Even if she doesn’t articulate a policy yet, it’s clear that the United States are on the verge of abandoning Richard Nixon’s Guam Doctrine in Asia. Read more “The Eagle is Back in Asia”

War with China: How It Could Happen

A rising China is natural competitor for the United States in the Pacific. Although the prospects for war are limited, they are real and may prove difficult to minimize.

In a recent study (PDF), the RAND Corporation, a public policy think tank, examines not so much the likelihood of a direct confrontation with China rather how and where a crisis can develop that could escalate into war.

If it chose, RAND observes, China could become a more formidable threat to the United States than Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were at the height of their power. China doesn’t appear to seek territorial expansion nor ideological aggrandizement at the expense of other countries and the United States are likely to remain militarily superior but in its immediate neighborhood, China could achieve hegemony. “In consequence, the direct defense of contested assets in that region will become progressively more difficult, eventually approaching impossible,” according to the RAND Corporation. Read more “War with China: How It Could Happen”

America’s Shadow Over the South China Sea

Conflict is boiling in the South China Sea once again. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton startled Beijing last week when she declared that the United States have a “national interest” in seeking to mediate a dispute which pits China against virtually all other maritime states in the region. The Chinese, of course, were furious about what they see as American meddling in their sphere of interest and would rather settle the matter with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bilaterally.

Speaking at an ASEAN summit in Hanoi, Vietnam last Friday, Clinton stressed that while the United States intend to remain neutral, they have an interest in preserving free shipping in the region and are willing to facilitate multilateral talks.

The issue involves some two hundred islands and coral outcroppings which are claimed by Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China has always insisted that its exclusive economic zone extends far into the South China Sea and claims all islands as its territory.

While the official Chinese response to Clinton’s offer was mild though positively agitated, newspapers have been less diplomatic. China’s Global Times complained of an “American shadow” over the South China Sea, questioning Clinton’s motives and warning ominously that “China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.” The Xinhua News Agency was similarly belligerent, alleging that the United States were stirring conflict in the region only to extend their influence. “By claiming American national interests in the South China Sea, Washington intends to expand its involvement in an ocean area tens of thousands of miles away from America.” Foreign interference, according to the state news agency, “will only […] hinder a smooth resolution of the thorny issue.”

The two powers have clashed in the South China Sea several times before. Most recently, in March of last year, the USNS Impeccable, an ocean surveillance ship which the Chinese accused of spying, was harassed by Chinese vessels 75 miles off the coast of Hainan Island, site to a large, underground submarine base. The Pentagon lodged a formal complaint; the Chinese complained in turn that the Impeccable had been cruising in its exclusive economic zone; President Barack Obama sent the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon to the area to protect the Impeccable.

American frustration with China’s determination to maintain predominance in the South China Sea is not Beijing’s foremost concern however. Washington, after all, needs Chinese support for sanctions against Iran and, more importantly, for action against North Korea. It won’t upset China too much about a few little islands which, really, America has nothing to do with and risk losing China’s already lukewarm support internationally.

Considering the fast improving trade relations between China and the member states of ASEAN, the former has a much greater interest in keeping its direct neighbors at bay. Without foreign support however, these countries are hardly capable of making a stand.

The Philippines in particular realize that they can’t take on China alone and have been pushing America to take their side. Clinton’s remarks at the ASEAN summit were something of a minor victory for Filipino diplomacy.

The Vietnamese, meanwhile, have shown an interest in the Quadrilateral Initiative which Australia, India, Japan and the United States launched in May 2007 in Manilla to counterbalance China’s naval potential. Last April, Vietnamese officials visited the USS John C. Stennis near Con Dao island off the Mekong Delta coast, chatting with US sailors about “strengthening mutual understanding” and “cooperating for peace in the region and world.” Although communist like China, relations between the two countries haven’t much improved since the brief Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. Border disputes and regional rivalry continue to be cause for mutual mistrust.

Finally, Japan has also been working to strengthen relations with other East Asian powers, including India, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, “over a variety of issues,” notes Kyle Mizokami at Japan Security Watch, “from piracy to the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan, with everything from soft power humanitarian visits to footwork by foreign and defense ministers.”

Clinton’s offer to mediate may have been quite sincere but coupled with perceived naval incursions in previous years, it’s not unnatural for some Chinese to presume otherwise. The United States should stand by its allies in Southeast Asia to prevent China from asserting itself in the region all too prematurely but there’s no need to congest the South China Sea with half of the Pacific Fleet. It’s a precarious balancing act, assuring both China and its neighbors that America favors neither at the expense of the other, but a highly important one at the same time.