[This article was first published here on The Huffington Post]
More than 20 years after a vote in its Senate asked the United States to vacate large-scale military bases in the country and leave, the Philippines announced on 27 January that it was looking for more joint military exercises with the US, as well as having a greater number of US troops rotating through the country.
While the Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario did not mention any specific reason for the Philippines’ drive for a greater US military presence, but he highlighted “territorial disputes” in his interaction with reporters at the announcement.
The most urgent territorial dispute for the Philippines is clearly with China over contesting claims to parts of the South China Sea – home to about one-tenth of the fishing catch landed globally, shipping routes that generate nearly half the tonnage of intercontinental trade in commercial goods, and a treasure chest of fossil fuels.
The Philippines and Vietnam, which also claims parts of the South China Sea, complained repeatedly last year of what they said were increasingly aggressive acts by China in the decades-long dispute.
The alleged aggressive acts, which included a Chinese naval ship reportedly firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen, fuelled fears among some nations in the region about China, especially in the light of the Asian giant’s growing military and political strength.
China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, including the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands, which many nations including the Philippines claim as their own. In September 2011, the Filipino President Benigno Aquino raised the tensions between the two nations a notch higher by announcing the renaming of a part of the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea in an effort to reinforce its claim to the Spratlys.
But that barely got acknwoledged by China. In January, the western command of the Philippine armed forces confiscated a Chinese fishing boat that had GPS, radios, and even air compressors for deep sea diving – clearly not the equipment that you would find in a normal fishing boat.
The Philippines claimed that the boat, which tried to ram a smaller Philippine patrol boat before the patrol party shot at and disabled the engine, was actually meant for surveillance.
In similar instances late last year, Chinese boats left construction materials near islands the Philippines claims. The Philippines quickly cleared them, because when this happened in 1995 on Mischief Reef, a reef in the Spratly Islands, the Chinese erected a structure almost overnight, and now have a permanent presence there. Mischief Reef is just 130 nautical miles from the Philippines, but more than 600 from China.
According to the International Law of the Sea, a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone extends 200 miles from its shores. But China maintains it has a historical claim to islands even farther away, because it found them and named them first.
But encroachment on the Philippines territories, as the southeast Asian nation describes it, is not the only threatening act that China engages in. When ExxonMobil announced in October 2011 that it had found what looked like a sizable natural gas field near the Vietnamese city of Danang, China warned that foreign companies shouldn’t proceed in waters that China claims.
In other words, from the Philippines’ perspective, things were getting out of its control recently and it had to seek out external help.
The US, on the other hand, is increasingly looking to contain China through a a shifting defence strategy with a greater military focus on Asia, beginning with the deployment of up to 2,500 Marines to northern Australia in November 2011. With many important ASEAN members – business partners of the US – being embroiled in a dispute with China in the South China Sea, responding favourably, and quickly, to the Philippine’s SOS was akin to seizing an opportunity.
The symbiotic nature of the new arrangement was not lost upon analysts.
Rene de Castro, a lecturer in international studies at De la Salle University, said to AFP, “Philippines is playing the balance of power game because it has no means to deal with an emergent and very assertive China.”
“The Philippines is now playing the US card to get more leverage against China,” Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, added.
That is certainly how China’s communist party controlled The Global Times newspaper saw the new announcement.
The paper suggested that while the US$30 billion in trade the Philippines has with China could have doubled in a couple of years, the Asian giant could now in fact punish the southeast Asian nation with sanctions for turning to the US.
Sounding ominous, it also suggested that the “little countries” in the region should stop challenging China’s interests, or they’ll “hear the roar of cannon fire.”
China’s view is that the US should stay out of the South China Sea. In November 2011, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said, disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved through consultation between involved sovereign states. He added that any “interference from outside forces would only complicate matters.”
It is a feeling that is shared by some within the Philippines too.
Dozens of activists of the left-leaning New Patriotic Alliance (NPA) marched outside the US embassy in Manila on January 28 to protest the expanding military cooperation between the two allies.
“We are very opposed to the plans to re-align and deploy more US troops in the Philippines […] And we feel that the Philippines might be caught in the rising tension between the two countries if we allow the U.S. to base their troops in this region,” spokesperson for the NPA, Renato Reyes told television reporters at the site of the protest.
In sync with Reyes contention, a January 26 research note published by the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy warned that efforts to hedge against the rise of China by the Philippines and Vietnam, which is also moving closer to the United States, could kindle tensions in 2012.
“While a direct confrontation remains unlikely, tensions over territorial disputes increase the risk of a miscalculation by Hanoi or Manila and of an overreaction by Beijing,” said the note, published on Thursday.
For the moment, the Aquino government is not getting deterred by such sentiments, and looks clearly in favour of fighting fire with fire. The future, however, is yet to be written.