A recent militarisation deal between Washington and Manila will have lasting implications for territorial disputes in the South China Sea
In late March, a crew of Philippine sailors was fishing in the South China Sea when they met a Chinese coastguard ship at Scarborough Shoal, which both China and the Philippines claim as their own. Philippine media reported that the Chinese sailors hurled bottles from their ship, while China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the Philippine fishermen of lobbing firebombs.
As tensions rise between Beijing and Manila over contested areas of the South China Sea, the US and the Philippines have announced a deal allowing US forces access to five military bases.
The tussle at Scarborough Shoal was not the first time the two countries have knocked heads in the South China Sea. In 2012, a Philippine warship encountered eight Chinese fishing vessels in a contested area. Philippine sailors said they found illegal coral and fish aboard the ships, leading to a tense standoff, with China ultimately gaining control of the territory. And throughout the mid- to late- 90s, China built structures on the aptly named Mischief Reef, another contested territory.
In response to Chinese expansionism in the sea, the Philippines is shoring up its military capabilities. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has said Manila is considering investing in its first-ever submarine fleet, and a UK defence contractor is selling two anti-submarine helicopters to the country.
The US – a long-time military ally of the Philippines – has also bolstered its presence in the region. Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia based at the University of New South Wales, said as China “regularly harasses” Philippine military ships and aircraft, the American military build-up is “vital for the Philippines, as it is ill-equipped to deal with Chinese assertiveness”. More than 5,000 US and Philippine troops are currently taking part in the annual Balikatan joint military exercises, where soldiers practice amphibious assault drills and disaster relief operations.
Thayer believes that China will use the recent base deal as pretence for moving its own military units to the South China Sea. But US forces, he says, are needed to balance China’s expansionism. “What would the situation in the South China Sea be like without a US presence?” he said. “The answer is that China would assert its hegemony and intimidate or coerce the region.”
The Philippine presidential elections will be held in May, and President Aquino is ineligible for re-election. The current administration in Manila, said Brendan Thomas-Noone, a research associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, wanted to conclude the base deal before the May elections, when a new president will likely not be as friendly with the US.
According to Eric Batalla, professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila, many in the Philippines welcome the US military. “They are seen as a relief in the effort to contain Chinese activity in Philippine-claimed waters,” he said. “However, there is still small opposition to the agreement.”
The Philippines exhibits two very different strategic cultures, Thayer explained. One is nationalist, anti-imperialist and opposes US military bases in the Philippines. The other is also nationalist, but seeks to shore up the alliance with the US.
Who will win the presidency, and how they will handle Washington, is still to be seen. “It would be hard for the new president to radically change Aquino’s stance – although they are likely to soften it a bit – without criticism of betraying national interests,” said Mark Thompson, director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre in Hong Kong.
Whatever the future holds, the US is unlikely to give up its stakes in the Philippines, as the archipelago offers a unique platform for military projection in the region.
“[The] American military presence in the South China Sea should reassure US allies, including the Philippines, while bolstering its deterrence against China,” said Toshi Yoshihara, professor of strategy and policy at the US Naval War College. “I see this as a stabilising move. China won’t like it, but it has only itself to blame. Its recent actions have stimulated realignments in the region that would have been unthinkable five years ago. “
Despite the ostensible security that US forces will bring to the Philippines, their redeployment is likely to rile Beijing, as in the past it has not shied away from defending its territorial interests. A 1988 skirmish between Vietnam and China military units over the Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands, another contested area in the South China Sea, resulting in 64 Vietnamese sailors killed.
“China views itself as having suffered in the past from foreign incursions in its territory,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank. “These memories are going to shape its policies and diplomatic interactions with other countries today.”
“From Beijing’s perspective,” Spangler added, “there is a fine line between the US lending its naval expertise to the region and something that feels much more akin to containment.”
With the US at its side, the Philippines is likely to be more brazen toward China than other Southeast Asian countries, said Oliver Turner, research fellow in political economy at the University of Manchester. According to Turner, the US should be doing everything in its power to avoid provoking nationalist sentiment in China, but pushing forward with tactics such as this recent base deal have the opposite effect. “The US is very much stuck in a cold war mentality,” he said.
In news conference on 21 March, Chinese Foreign Ministry representative Hua Chunying spoke to an underlying hypocrisy in the US military build-up. “I also want to point out that recently the US military likes to talk about the so-called militarisation of the South China Sea,” said Hua.
“Can they then explain, isn’t this kind of continued strengthening of military deployments in the South China Sea and areas surrounding it considered militarisation?”
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