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Situating the Philippines Between U.S. and China in South China Sea

Apr 18 , 2016

In the choppy waters of the South China Sea, China and the United States are entangled in a complex power struggle with no end in sight. Both major powers have intensified their military activities in the contested body of water. They have, in fact, accused each other of “militarizing” the South China Sea disputes.  In the crosshairs of this power struggle is the Philippines. As China’s permanent neighbor and the U.S.’ long-time ally, the Philippines has been strategic with their unique role.

According to China, the U.S. is the main source of militarization in the South China Sea. This has resulted in disputes because of the U.S.’ regular deployment of advanced American aircrafts and warships pursuing “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) in the area. Thus far, the U.S. has conducted two major FONOPs in the South China Sea through the USS Lassen in October 2015 and the USS Curtis Wilbur in January 2016. The U.S. Navy has also enhanced its military presence in the region by conducting regular port visits to Asian allies, particularly to the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Australia.

Over the past week the U.S. and the Philippines conducted their annual joint military exercises, dubbed as Balikatan 2016 (Shoulder-to-Shoulder 2016). The primary focus is assisting the Philippine military so that it may improve its capability for “territorial defense” against the backdrop of increasing maritime tensions in the South China Sea. This year’s military exercise is already the 32nd Balikatan exercise between the two allies. But this year it was a milestone in the history of Balikatan as it involved two other American military allies: Japan and Australia.

Australia sent eighty Defense Force personnel to take part in “three simultaneous events through one single scenario across the Philippine islands, Luzon, Palawan and Panay.” Australian participation was justified because of Canberra’s Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) with Manila. Japan’s participation, however, was limited to tabletop exercises pending the outcome of negotiations on the proposed Japan-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement.  The participation of Japan and Australia in the recent Balikatan exercises strongly demonstrated the allies’ acceptance of increased American military presence in the South China Sea.

The Philippines has been the main focus of the U.S. since its the only American ally that is a claimant in the sea dispute. The Philippines is also the American frontline state in the pursuit of enacting U.S. policy in the South China Sea. The Philippines provides the U.S. military an effective access to the South China Sea as the U.S. government implements its “rebalance to Asia” strategy.

For the U.S., its increased military presence in the South China Sea region is essential to fulfill its security commitments to its allies, particularly the Philippines. Though the U.S. publicly declares that its increased naval and air presence in the South China Sea does not hold the intention of confronting China militarily Beijing regards the U.S. military presence as a form of strategic encirclement of China.

Because of its fear of American encirclement China has also increased its presence in the South China Sea by building artificial islands in the seven reefs of the Spratlys.  The U.S. is convinced that China’s artificial islands in the Spratlys can have no other than military purposes. Therefore the U.S. regards these artificial islands as indicators of China’s own version of militarization in the South China Sea.

There is no doubt that China and the U.S. have recently intensified their power struggle in the South China Sea because of their competing security interests and strategic outlooks. Though the South China Sea is not yet a military problem at present, increased military activities from these two major powers also increase the risks of unintended military encounters in the area.

The Philippines has a pivotal role to play, in preventing or exacerbating the possibility of unintended military encounters between the two giants. To repair the Philippines’ damaged ties with China would require Manila to resume its direct bilateral talks with Beijing by reopening channels of communication at the highest levels of decision-making. Though the Philippine public opinion continues to reject Chinese build-up in the Spratlys, Filipinos continue to admire China’s culture, civilization, and current economic prosperity as evidenced by growing Filipino visits and investments in China. In fact, most of the presidential candidates for the May 2016 Philippine elections have expressed their intentions to improve Philippine bilateral ties with China.

But if the Philippines fail’s to improve its current political relations with China, while continuously enhancing its defense alliance with the U.S., the Philippines can become a catalyst for the proverbial “Thucydides trap” in the vast sea where China and the U.S. may inevitably collide.

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