A military pact between Manila and Washington sealed on Obama's trip to Asia is giving Beijing the jitters.
BEIJING — On April 28, just a few hours before President Barak Obama's arrival in the Philippines, the final stop of his four-nation Asia tour, the United States and the Philippines signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). This can rightly be called the most concrete achievement of the U.S. President's visit to Asia.
With this renewable 10-year pact the U.S. is allowed to strengthen its military presence in the Philippines while the Philippines can also enhance its national defense forces.
"Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China," stated President Obama in the joint press conference held in Manila with President Benigno Aquino. The U.S. president has been particularly careful on this Asia tour to avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as hostile to China.
However, undoubtedly, China is the important context that brought about this U.S.-Philippine military pact. If China didn’t exist, the Philippines would most likely be reluctant to invite its former colonial master, America, back to its soil. Even today Filipino leftists and nationalists are still extremely indignant about "American Imperialism." Contrary to the popularity he aroused by his visits to three other countries, there were angry protests to greet Obama's arrival.
Change of mind
In 1992, due to opposition in the Philippines, the U.S. Navy withdrew from Subic Bay, its permanent base in the Philippines. Up to then the Philippines had been America's largest naval base. The division of their duties had been that the U.S. military was responsible for external territorial defense while the Philippines' armed forces were responsible for the maintenance of internal stability. After the retreat of the Americans, the Philippines suddenly realized its extreme vulnerability in defense.
"We don't even have a single fighter aircraft in our inventory," said President Aquino at the press conference. Very weak in both air and naval forces and exhausted by rebel groups and anti-terrorism needs at home, the Philippines does not have any extra energy to build up its external defense forces. As one of the ASEAN countries which is lagging behind economically, building military forces is a particularly heavy burden for this small nation.
Because of the Sino-Philippine dispute over Mischief Reef which began in 1994, the Philippines started reconsidering military cooperation with the U.S. and signed the Visiting Forces Agreement in 1999 allowing temporary deployment of U.S. forces in the Philippines.
Since taking office President Aquino has also announced a five-year defense modernization plan. Apart from arms purchase it also implies the training of new military capability. From the point of view of the Filipino government there is no better way to improve its forces than joint operations with the U.S.
A show of soft power
Negotiations between Manilla and Washington got a surprise boost in the aftermath of disaster when November's super-typhoon Haiyan exposed the weakness of Philippine's armed forces. In the face of catastrophe it was almost helpless. Within hours, the U.S. military has dispatched its Marine Corps stationed in Okinawa, Japan. U.S. warships arrived within a week and the U.S. government provided $140 million for reconstructionafter the disaster
The American military's role in the relief provided the best propaganda for both countries. For the Philippines using the grounds of responding tofrequent extreme weather disasters and the humanitarian aid offered enables it to resist internal nationalist criticism of cooperating with the U.S. For America, it can say such cooperation is not addressed to China but is done because of humanitarian necessity.
All in all, as the United States’ oldest Asian ally, the Philippines has naturally become central to its "Return to Asia" strategy.
Meanwhile, America's most important ally in Asia — Japan, has also begun to strengthen cooperation with the Philippines. Since taking office, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been helping the Philippines in building up its military forces with the leasing of ten patrol ships and dispatching members of its Self-Defense Forcesto help in the relief of the typhoon Haiyan, which would turn out to be Japan's biggest ever postwar military intervention abroad. Last month Japan announcedit would provide another $ 67 million forrelief supplies. In return, President Aquino has expressed his support of Premier Abe's plan of revising Japan's Peace Constitution.
In China's eye, the growing cooperation between the Philippines, Japan and the U.S. can instead seem rather hostile. And yet, the only country really capable of changing the Asia-Pacific military balance, America, is not interested in starting a war there.
This is because “return to Asia” is first and foremost an economic interest for the U.S. The Asian emerging market is the world’s major growth engine for the next few decades and thus every country in the world including the developed West all hope to enhance their economic ties with Asia.
The U.S. priority in Asia is to ensure that trade and economic activities can be carried out smoothly. The South China Sea is the world’s most important international hub of trade routes. The globalization-oriented America must guarantee the freedom of the region’s maritime channel.
Whereas America holds a symbolic “ally of friendship” stance in the Sino-Japan East China Sea dispute, on the South China Sea issue it will have a more realistic advantage and incentive to maintain the status quo.
As the U.S. enhances its military presence in the South China Sea, China’s tough stance in claiming sovereignty will have an increasing cost. The most beneficial method is to conduct diplomatic measures and find solutions acceptable by all parties.
However, currently China doesn’t have an international image that wins trust. In the eyes of the outside world China rejects the Philippines proposition for resolving territorial disputes through international arbitration. It stubbornly resists resolving the dispute through international law and cares about only its own interests. This leads to the lack of a sense of security in its neighboring countries.
“While it's inevitable that China's going to be a dominant power in this region,” said Obama, “it is indispensable that China gains the trust of others.”
At present, the one thing that China can do is perhaps to show sufficient sincerity and a constructive attitude in just re-opened South China Sea Code of Conduct negotiations so as to prove that China's rise will be a peaceful one.