Manila’s role in avert­ing China-US con­flict

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

In the choppy wa­ters of the South China Sea, China and the United States are en­tan­gled in a com­plex power strug­gle. The two ma­jor pow­ers have ac­cused each other of “mil­i­ta­riz­ing” the South China Sea dis­putes. In the crosshair of this power strug­gle is the Philip­pines. As China’s neigh­bor and the US’ long-time ally, the Philip­pines has been strate­gic in its unique role.

Ac­cord­ing to China, the US is the main source of mil­i­ta­riza­tion in the South China Sea. This has re­sulted in dis­putes be­cause of the US’ reg­u­lar de­ploy­ment of ad­vanced Amer­i­can air­craft and war­ships pur­su­ing “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions” in the re­gion. So far, the US has con­ducted two ma­jor “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions” in the South China Sea us­ing guided-mis­sile de­stroy­ers USS Lassen in Oc­to­ber 2015 and USS Cur­tisWil­bur in Jan­uary 2016. The USNavy has also strength­ened its mil­i­tary pres­ence in the re­gion and its war­ships have made port calls to Asian al­lies, par­tic­u­larly the Philip­pines, Ja­pan, South Korea, Thai­land and Aus­tralia.

The US and the Philip­pines re­cently con­ducted their an­nual joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cise, called Ba­likatan 2016 (Shoul­der-to-Shoul­der 2016). The pri­mary fo­cus of the drill was to help the Philip­pine mil­i­tary im­prove its ca­pa­bil­ity for “ter­ri­to­rial de­fense” against the back­drop of ris­ing ten­sions in the South China Sea. This year’s drill was the 32nd Ba­likatan be­tween the two al­lies, but it also in­volved two other US mil­i­tary al­lies, Ja­pan and Aus­tralia.

The Philip­pines has been the main fo­cus of the US since it’s the on­lyWash­ing­ton ally that has a dis­pute with China in the South China Sea. The Philip­pines is also the US’ front­line state in the pur­suit of en­act­ing the US pol­icy in the South China Sea, be­cause it pro­vides the US mil­i­tary ef­fec­tive ac­cess to the wa­ters asWash­ing­ton im­ple­ments its “re­bal­ance to Asia” strat­egy.

For the US, its in­creased mil­i­tary pres­ence in the South China Sea is es­sen­tial to ful­fill its se­cu­rity com­mit­ments to its al­lies, par­tic­u­larly the Philip­pines. ThoughWash­ing­ton publicly de­clares that its in­creased naval and air pres­ence in the South China Sea is not aimed at con­fronting Beijing mil­i­tar­ily, China re­gards the US mil­i­tary pres­ence as a form of strate­gic en­cir­clement of the coun­try. The fear of US en­cir­clement, in turn, has prompted China, too, to in­crease its pres­ence in the South China Sea by build­ing is­lands on the seven reefs ofNan­sha Is­lands (called Spratlys in the Philip­pines). The US is con­vinced that China’s “ar­ti­fi­cial” is­lands in the Nan­sha Is­lands can have no other but mil­i­tary pur­pose.

China and the US 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, in­creased mil­i­tary ac­tiv­i­ties by the two ma­jor pow­ers have in­creased the risk of un­in­tended mil­i­tary con­flicts in the area.

Manila has a piv­otal role to play, in pre­vent­ing or ex­ac­er­bat­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of an un­in­tended mil­i­tary con­flict be­tween the two gi­ants. To re­pair its dam­aged ties with Beijing, Manila has to re­sume di­rect bi­lat­eral talks by re­open­ing chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the high­est lev­els of de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Though public opin­ion in the Philip­pines con­tin­ues to re­ject Chi­nese build-up in the Nan­sha Is­lands, Filipinos con­tinue to ad­mire China’s cul­ture, civ­i­liza­tion and eco­nomic pros­per­ity as ev­i­denced by the grow­ing num­ber of Filipino vis­its and in­vest­ments in China. In fact, most of the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates for theMay 2016 Philip­pine elec­tions say they would im­proveManila’s re­la­tions with Beijing if elected.

But if the Philip­pines fails to im­prove its re­la­tions with China while con­tin­u­ously en­hanc­ing its de­fense al­liance with the US, it can be­come a cat­a­lyst for the prover­bial “Thucy­dides trap” in the vast sea where China and the US could col­lide.

The author teaches in­ter­na­tional stud­ies at Miriam Col­lege in Que­zon city of the Philip­pines, and is di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for In­tel­li­gence and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Stud­ies. Source: chin­aus­fo­cus.com

LI FENG/ CHINA DAILY

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